Scottish Charity Number: SCO36069

30th April 2015

Michael Sleeman footprinter report from Fiji

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Two and a Half Month Report Michael Sleeman

Bula everyone! For those of you who missed my initial pre-departure report, my name is Michael and I am currently on a gap year placement, working as a teacher in a school in Fiji. I started at the beginning of Fijian school term 1, back in mid-January and I will be here until the end of term 2 which will be sometime in the middle of August.

What you are about to read is my attempt to summarise what I have been up to over the last two months into a fairly concise report. However, I warn you before I begin that, even if I could spend the next two months writing, there are still plenty of things that I would miss out and plenty more that I dont think I would be able to put into words and so you will just have to make do with a selection of impressions, experiences, thoughts and feelings. I cant promise that the things that will end up in here will be the most significant or relevant but I will do my best and hope that you enjoy reading it nonetheless.

On arrival at Nadi airport, the first thing that hit me was the humidity; not so much the heat although for nine oclock in the morning, twenty-eight degrees was certainly hot enough but the humidity. I suppose that it probably felt all the worse for having just spent twenty-five hours or something like that sitting in air conditioned planes. The other thing that became immediately apparent is that the Fijian people really are amongst the friendliest in the world.

Where in England you might be met by unsmiling, officious looking airport security guards, we were met by airport smiling officials in colourful bula clothing who were all too keen to greet us and make us feel welcome in their country. Other things that made impressions very early on were the stunning natural beauty and dazzling shades of green that were everywhere; the experience of riding a bus (there is just something incredibly satisfying about trundling along through this beautiful countryside with the wind blowing in your face and loud music blasting through overhead speakers); and the fairly brutal time difference (when we first arrived, the difference was +13 hours).

We spent the first week all together in Nadi (in total, there were 31 of us from various countries) for an in-country orientation. This involved various talks, classes in language and classroom management and, of course, plenty of sightseeing and going out to experience the culture. This was great fun and we all got on really well together. However, at times it seemed much more like a holiday than the start of a seven month placement and the enormity of it didnt really sink in until I arrived at my school, Naiyala.

Suddenly I was on my own surrounded by people I didnt know in a completely unfamiliar environment and the for the first few days I had no real clue what was happening; I was just swept along in the wake of other teachers. Thankfully, the first week of term was almost entirely given over to enrolment and orientation of the students so classes didnt properly begin until week two, giving me a bit of time to find my feet. Since then, my time here has been a complete rollercoaster ride: full of highs and lows and gathering momentum the whole time.

At first, I was given year 11 maths and year 11 physics to teach. The physics wasnt too much of a problem as there were only five students and they were all pretty good. The maths class, on the other hand, had forty-nine students, many of whom had no interest whatsoever in maths and many more of whom had difficulty understanding my accent.

A lot of the time, the teaching methods and styles that I used were unfamiliar to them and they didnt respond very well. As a result, we got further and further behind where we were meant to be with the terms coverage and the students became unhappy and started complaining: by week six, it was clear something was going to have to change. Much as I hated to admit it, I was essentially failing in my role as a teacher and continuing to teach them would not be in anyones best interest and so, with quite a lot of difficulty, I had to allow this particular responsibility to be taken away from me.

As demoralising as this whole episode was, almost immediately, things started to change for the better. I still went along to the lessons but, rather than teaching, I observed another teacher doing the teaching and just helped out around the class where necessary. Through doing this, I got a feel for what works with the students and what doesnt and I also got a chance to get to know the students better by going around and helping them on an individual basis rather than talking at them from the blackboard. Within the first week, I already had some students tell me that they were missing having me as their teacher.

Gradually over the next few weeks, as I regained confidence and adapted my style, I started taking some of the classes again and I also started going along to year 10 and year 12 maths classes to do the same kind of thing. By week 9, I was pretty much sharing responsibility for all the classes with the other maths teacher; sometimes he would teach and other times I would teach. I can now happily say that I am feeling back on track and enjoying myself one hell of a lot more.

I am now almost constantly caught up in school work: teaching classes; preparing notes and worksheets; making exam papers (actually an incredibly demanding task as you also have to make mark schemes, answer booklets and blueprints for each one); marking work; and taking late night interactive classes with some of the boarders. At the same time, I am frequently called on to cover other duties around the school, such as supervising prep or meal times, and I have got myself involved in helping to lead the Duke of Edinburgh Club. As I said: gathering momentum the whole time.

On top of all of the school stuff, I am enjoying an incredibly rich social life. I know it sounds pretty sad, but I have to say, I have never had such a strong social life in my whole life. During the week, all the teachers live in quarters on the school compound so we are all in very close proximity. I live with the home-ec teacher (very fortunate when it comes to mealtimes!) and her family who are lovely, and then I have been adopted into various other families throughout my time here. Almost every weekend, I will go out with someone to their home and so have been lucky enough to see quite a few different parts of the island, all of which have been exciting in their own ways and almost all of which have involved a considerable amount of sitting around eating delicious local foods and drinking copious amounts of grog and Fiji Bitter beer (lager).

Even after two and a half months of being here, the beauty of the country and the friendliness that you encounter everywhere still fills me with wonder every day. Admittedly, there are plenty of struggles that I go through and things that arent so amazing mosquitoes, for instance, or the very demanding workload (the school day is eight and a half hours long plus extra classes all day on Saturday and quite often Im up at four in the morning in order to meet deadlines for work, making the day a lot, lot longer) but the positives far outweigh the negatives and I would thoroughly recommend that anyone considering taking a gap year to do a placement like this really goes for it.

Obviously, I am only one person and my experience will differ greatly from another persons but I do have contact from time to time with other volunteers around the country and in other countries around the globe and they are all as filled with positive enthusiasm as I am.

I think, Ill stop there for now as youve probably got better things to be doing with your time than trawling through every last detail of my stay in Fiji. Will write again in a couple of months time with more news. Until then, wishing everyone the best.


Image credit – Nathan Hughes.

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