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Kartarzyna Bartoszuk: How volunteering questions your teaching experience 

ETAS Journal Volume 38, Number 1 (Summer 2021), p. 44

Back in August 2019, whilst on a train from Zurich airport, I met a woman and we started chatting. I told her that I teach English and she said that she recruits English teachers to teach in Mongolia. Since then, I've been harbouring a longing to take her up on her offer. 

I recently settled down with a cup of coffee to read some articles from my ETAS Journal (Summer 2021), and to my surprise there was an article about teaching in Mongolia! It was a joy to read about someone else's experience of where I'd like to go one day. 

Kartarzyna Bartoszuk's article brought to life the challenges of teaching a monolingual group and gaining the students' confidence so that they can acquire as much practice, experience, and tools as possible. She explains how this volunteering experience made her question her own teaching skills and whether she could do anything to improve those skills. She had to go back to the drawing board when tried and tested tools that she had used in Switzerland fell flat with the Mongolian adults. After much self-doubt and perseverance, she finished the summer on a high note with students who enjoyed her classes and actively participated. She became a stronger teacher with more self-confidence and tools in her belt for teaching reluctant students. This article gave me so much enthusiasm and I can't wait for my own Mongolian experience in a couple of years! Enjoy the read.

Sonja Vigneswaren

How volunteering questions your teaching experience 

Kartarzyna Bartoszuk


Getting out of her comfort zone volunteering in Mongolia helped Katarzyna Bartoszuk reconsider what to do in class and how to approach reluctant learners. In this lively and practical article, Katarzyna recommends volunteering abroad as a great way to travel the world and make a real difference to those most in need of quality language training. 

Volunteering abroad is a fantastic way to travel the world, see the "unknown" and even make a difference in less privileged societies. Surprisingly, it often questions your teaching skills and ability to adjust to new circumstances. Having taught in Switzerland for almost five years, I left a well-equipped international school to venture into Inner Mongolia, where I spent a month with students poised for learning, but also meagre teaching resources and an omnipresent reluctance to speak a foreign language. 

Ulaanbaatar is a mixture of the modern Western world and reminiscent of a communist state. On your right, you will see shabby leftovers of Stalinist architecture and on your left lavish skyscrapers hosting luxurious boutiques. The ubiquitous idolisation of Gengis Khan, buzz, milk tea, and friendly locals attract thousands of tourists every year. Having explored the capital, we set off to conquer the wilderness of the Uvs Province. A twenty-six-hour bus ride full of Mongolian music, toilet stops at steppes and views of flocks of sheep running free will always remain my number one travelling experience. Not only was I off the beaten track but I also participated in little meal stops, lining up for a "hole in the ground" toilet (better keep your balance!) and even assisted in rescuing the bus stuck on muddy roads. 

Due to the summer break in Ulaangom, the classes were optional and aimed at encouraging students to broaden their cultural awareness, as well as to become engrossed in the target language on a daily basis. Volleyball matches, dancing, movie afternoons or exposés about the environment were also a part of our routine. On the first day of school, we four volunteers were greeted by 60 students! After having divided them into four levels, it was time to start our mission! 

And we struggled. Once you get out of your comfort teaching zone, normally insignificant obstacles can ruin your lesson plans. limited access to the Internet, a copy machine as slow as molasses in January, lack of a usable toilet in the building, disappearing keys, or cows wandering by the school premises are just a few, now nostalgic, memories to name. 

What do you do when your students do not talk? Language teaching techniques in Mongolia focus on the practice of grammar and writing, a stoical approach producing hardworking but silent English users. Unable to communicate, they needed a lot of warming up. 

I was assigned to level 4, a group of adults who never ceased speaking Mongolian in class. Following the sacred DELTA experience, I introduced them to numerous speaking activities in order to enhance the use of the target language. Every day they had to work with their partners, tell me about their day, collaborate with others in groups, or mingle to interview their classmates. Initially they were reluctant to speak English and vehemently insisted on conversing in Mongolian. Such a difference to my frenzied and talkative students back in Switzerland. Frankly, I was discouraged and disappointed with myself. The really tricky bit is not to work with fervently speaking upper intermediate learners. The art of language teaching is to effect all those small changes with the most demanding learners. Eager to change their classroom behaviour, I had to monitor students and their partners at all times in order to encourage them to speak entirely in English. This finally paid off! After a couple of weeks, the group was the opposite of what I had encountered the first week. They started using the target language during the activities and sometimes I even had to force them to stop talking! bear in mind, those were not elaborated exposés, but the little joys that make it worth the effort. 

Our absolute favourite was Back to the Board, a game whereby two teams compete to help their leaders guess the word written on the Board. The word can onIy be mimed. I was extremely surprised how well they performed. Everyone was active and did their best to win. It was the most memorable day volunteering in Mongolia and my personal teaching success. 

To sum up, I think this experience proves how important it is to be a consistent teacher and try to break down barriers. You may question yourself or even doubt your competencies, but challenges only make you stronger. Volunteering in Mongolia helped me reconsider what to do in class and how to approach reluctant learners. I find it essential that students use English in class at all times and showing them how to do it, getting them accustomed to new rules pays off. Well done, level 4! 

About the Author

Katarzyna is the Head of Modern Languages in one of the Swiss private schools. Her research interests include second language acquisition and how one's mother tongue influences second language learning. She has a Master's in Applied Linguistics, CELTA qualification and she is a certified audiovisual translator.