Ever wondered what it’s really like to volunteer teaching English at a summer camp abroad?
Well in Summer 2014, we both volunteered to teach English for 7 weeks at the kid’s summer camp in Romania, Tabara Happy Faces, you know, instead of getting a real job. We arrived on camp with no experience and not really knowing what to expect, so here’s a summary of how it all went along with everything you need to know if you are considering trying it out yourself.
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Happy Faces advertises for international volunteers through couchsurfing.com and this is where we and most of the other volunteers found out about the camp. Couchsurfing is a great place to start searching if you’re looking volunteering opportunities, as there are loads of groups dedicated to this (especially teaching English) all over the world. Lots of summer camps and even schools use the site and most of them are genuine, fair volunteering opportunities, which offer food and accommodation in exchange for your help. All of this without having to pay thousands of dollars to a company for them to find you a ‘unique volunteering opportunity for your gap year’. Those companies can fuck off.
We sent a Facebook message to the camp leader, Dalina saying that we were interested. If you want to volunteer yourself, just send a message to Dalina on Facebook and find out more info. The application process was simple enough; we exchanged a few messages, filled a short application form emailed it back and had a relaxed Skype interview. She accepted us both and we agreed to stay for 7 weeks and take a week holiday in the middle, all in exchange for our food and accommodation. Neither of us had any previous experience working with children, let alone teaching, but this wasn’t a problem. The focus of selection was more on working out whether you had the right kind of personality for the job and whether you wanted to do it for the right reasons, the experience would come later.
Happy Faces was a smallish fenced in camp site sat in the middle of the small village of Ighiu in Transylvania. There were no tents or big open fields here, but nice wooden chalets and brick dorm rooms. It had a small outdoor swimming pool, a basketball court, a pond and a large wooden terrace in the centre. It kinda reminded us of a nice small holiday camp that you might have visited with your family as a kid. You can read more about our first impressions of the campsite and our first week on camp in Happy Faces in Romania.
We slept on the camp site in bunks in a 4-bed dorm room, sharing with two other volunteers who soon became our closest friends. Most of the other staff were living in a house just a few meters outside of the camp and we would usually head over there at the end of each day to hang out.
Each camp consisted of around 100 kids aged between 4-17 who would stay with us for around five days before leaving and a fresh bunch of kids arrived on camp. The daily routine went something like this:-
Morning wakeup workout for the campers to some upbeat music
10:00 – 11:30
English class for those campers who had it, workshops for those who didn’t
11:30 – 13:00
Workshops for all campers
15:00 – 16:30
English class for those campers who had it, workshops for those who didn’t
16:30 – 18:00
Workshops for all campers
20:30 – 22:00
It was a long day on camp, but this was the routine for the kids and the responsibilities were shared out among the staff.
Working at the camp were a mix of International and Romanian volunteers, the numbers of which varied during our time there. In the beginning there were far more Romanians than Internationals and so our responsibilities were pretty much limited to teaching the English lessons and the Romanians would take care of the lions share of the work, such as running the workshops, evening activities and general camp cleaning & maintenance. As the weeks went by more Internationals arrived and Romanians left, meaning our days got longer as we began to take on some of their responsibilities, such as organising our own workshops (our favourite was having an ‘English Tea Party’ to teach the kids more about where we came from … by just sitting around drinking tea and eating cake) as well as helping with the evening activities.
The workshops were a mix of the typical fun ‘summer camp activities’ you’d expect; sports, dance, arts etc. In the evenings the entire camp would come together for the evening activity, usually along the lines of a school disco, karaoke night or talent show (which we even took part in once, by putting on dresses and lipstick – check it out in our blog Camp Life Becomes a Drag). After lights out the staff would usually have a meeting in the office to discuss plans for the days ahead, before heading to the staff house to relax and socialise.
The campers were also given a number of trips outside of camp to choose from and some of the staff would accompany them. You can read about all of the cool places that we visited in our blog – Exploring Transylvania: Days Out With Happy Faces. We would usually go on 2-3 trips a week with the kids and it was generally voluntary, unless there weren’t enough volunteers or the entire camp was going. The trips included visiting a monastery, an adventure park and a salt mine. Some were more fun than others, but we tried each at least once and found they were a great way to get to know the kids better, as much of the time was spent just chatting and hanging out.
Rick and I were given our own class of 10-20 kids to teach two 1.5hr lessons per day.
At the beginning of each camp, the kids were given a simple English test and the staff who were teaching English would split them into classes according to their ability. Each week Rick and I usually took the intermediate class, as we didn’t really have the experience to teach the advanced and there was another volunteer who was a nursery teacher, so was better suited to the beginners. Having the intermediate group also meant that the kids could speak enough English that we didn’t need to worry about them not being able to understand us and when some students couldn’t understand there was always another kid in the class who could translate for us. The beginner class on the other hand always had a Romanian staff member present to translate and crowd control.
The lessons were held on tables outdoors or on the terrace and we were given full freedom to teach whatever we wanted, in any way that we wanted. The lessons were super laid back and our only guidance from the camp leader was that we should make the lessons fun as the kids were on vacation and not at school, which meant lots of games and no sitting around learning grammar. The general attitude was ‘you can do anything, so long as you’re doing it in English’. That could be dangerous…
Having never taught before, simply being told to ‘go and teach something’ was initially pretty daunting, but with a lot of help, advice and ideas from our fellow volunteers we soon got an idea for the kind of things to do.
For most of our lessons we would split the whole class and do group based activities, as this made it easier to control the kids and more fun for them. Sometimes we would do activities which took the whole lesson, such as designing a perfect country, story writing or a class debate, but most of the time we would make a kind of game show by playing a variety of word, memory and physical games, awarding points to the team which won each round. If a game didn’t work too well we would dismiss it then swap and share ideas with the other volunteers also teaching English. This format usually worked well and ensured all of the kids were paying attention, through the peer pressure of their team mates. One of our favourite games was a memory game where each team was given a picture of a cartoon messy bedroom to memorise and they would then be asked questions such as ‘can you name one thing on the desk?’, you should have seen the glares a kid would get if he answered wrong!
We both settled into our teacher roles pretty quickly, it turns out I have a natural talent for bossing kids around while drinking ‘coffee’. The initial nerves soon disappeared and we enjoyed creating a casual and friendly atmosphere, trying to make the classes as fun as possible and focussing on getting to know the kids over formal lesson structure. Making the lessons fun and engaging also meant that the kids were generally well behaved and respectful in class. Obviously there were times when they wouldn’t shut up or messed around, but the peer pressure created by the team format usually meant they self policed and when they didn’t, a slightly raised voice and mean look was enough to get back on track.
The kids were great! I know it’s a cliché, but honestly the kids really made this whole experience for us and getting to know them was our favourite thing about the whole experience.
Most of the kids were from relatively well-off backgrounds (it wasn’t a cheap camp), which meant 2 things.
1. They spoke relatively good English. Learning English is now part of the curriculum in Romania (before the fall of the USSR it wasn’t) and so most knew enough English to hold a basic conversation and in general, the older they were the better their English.
2. They were well behaved. In class they were respectful and outside of class they were friendly and energetic, rarely causing any real problems beyond the standard crap kids of that age try to get away with at camp – staying up past lights out, smuggling candy in etc. There were occasionally kids who were a bit spoilt, but they were easy enough to handle. The vast majority of kids at the camp were in a happy holiday mode.
We often found that the teenagers spoke English fluently and were curious to speak with us to both practise their English and learn more about where we were from. Hanging out with these guys and really getting to know them was the highlight of the camp for us and it was from these conversations that we learned the most about their lives and how they see the world.
Mostly they wanted to find out more about where we came from as Romania doesn’t attract many outside visitors and so this was often the only chance to speak to a foreigner that the kids had ever had. Chatting about our countries and travelling the world was always nice and the kids often had ambitions to travel themselves, so we tried to encourage them whenever we could.
Have you ever been to Romania? I thought not. So few people ever think of visiting as a tourist, but maybe you should reconsider. The Romanian countryside and especially the Transylvania region is extremely beautiful, with rolling green hills, tiny rural villages, waterfalls, forest, castles and some of the best driving roads you’ll find anywhere. Medieval towns such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighisoara are beautiful, cheap and free of the crowds of tourists found in more popular places such as Prague. The Transfagarasan mountain road in particular is worth a visit alone and a road trip around Transylvania is an unforgettable experience – you can read about ours in our blog Road Trip Translyvania.
Romania is however one of the poorest EU countries and driving around you do get a sense of that. The countryside feels like being transported back in time a few decades as you’ll see plenty of horse drawn carts, farmers working the fields and run down buildings, but on the whole the people are friendly and helpful although English isn’t spoken much. In the capital, Bucharest, people are much less friendly and sometimes a bit rude, but this seems to be a common symptom for capital cities all over the world. Because of the history of communist rule, anybody over the age of 30 is unlikely to be able to speak good English, as it wasn’t taught in schools, although as always when travelling, the younger people are often more capable.
Romania is also an extremely religious country, there are Roman Orthodox Churches everywhere along with crosses and images of Jesus displayed prominently on many houses and gardens. It’s pretty sad to see as there seems to be no lack of funding for the Church, we saw several new ones being built and even a new cathedral (the first time I’ve seen this anywhere), but yet I don’t remember seeing a single hospital and education across the country is severely underfunded. I spoke to a couple of the school teachers while at camp and discovered that an average high school teacher can expect to earn around 300 Euros per month – seriously. The only Jesus Romania really needs comes in the form of Mexican doctors and school teachers.
Yes Romania has gypsies. If you believed the western media, you’d think that everybody from Romania is a gypsy, but then you’d also be an ignorant asshole. In truth we were slightly ignorant ourselves about what the situation was with gypsies in Romania, so here’s what we learned whilst there. Romanians and gypsies are two separate peoples and perhaps surprisingly, there is a greater amount of resentment for gypsies coming from Romanians than there is from the rest of Europe. Speaking to the kids on camp they would often say how much they hated gypsies, for thieving, scamming and occupying land and they blamed them for a lot of their countries problems. Most of the children were extremely concerned that gypsies were giving their country a bad image and they would often ask how we felt about Romania, keen to see what our view was.
It’s easy to understand where they’re coming from when in western media the term Romanian and gypsy are often interchangeable and when nobody visits the country, the truth remains hidden. From our experience, we never actually met any gypsies and only saw a handful in our time there, but we met a lot of Romanians and they for sure were nice people.
We both have slightly different feelings after the camp and so this part will be written solely from Antony’s point of view.
There were so many great things about camp life;
Being in such a buzzing environment, surrounded by young energetic staff and over excited kids on holiday was a lot of fun. The whole place was designed so that the kids have a great time with lots of games and activities and if you can’t share in some of that excitement and fun then you’re doing it wrong. Besides, having never been to a summer camp as a kid, just being here was a cool enough experience to take me back to my childhood dreams … which were dashed along with my adult ones.
We made friends with other staff members from all over the world who we never would have met otherwise. We would hang out together in the evenings and have a few beers and we really became a sort of family during our time there, supporting each other when we needed it and making each other laugh even on the bad days. We still keep in contact with most of our colleagues and now have some friends for life from Romania, Indonesia, Spain, Cuba and elsewhere, which in itself made the whole thing worthwhile.
It may sound cheesy, but honestly there isn’t much better than having a child come and say to you that your class was their favourite thing about camp. I always underestimated how good this felt until it happened a few times (hundreds really, I’m just being modest), but when you’re having a bad day and a kid says something like this with a sweet smile on their face it just fills you will a swelling pride that makes it all seem worth it, no matter how crap or tired you were feeling beforehand.
The kids in general were amazing and whilst we didn’t have nearly as much energy as they did, or as much as the other staff to actually play or interact with them 24/7, just getting to know a few kids really well was an absolute highlight. We always preferred to remain super casual with the kids and hang out with them as equals, after all a lot of them were in their mid-late teens and so not far from our own age (not too far anyway. Shut up). They’d make us laugh, we’d share stories and they’d tell us what they were into, which perhaps not surprisingly, isn’t all that different to what teenagers from the UK are into (mostly 1 Direction).
Despite all of this, there were plenty of bad days on camp where our motivation was low and we really considered leaving. These days got more frequent over the 7 weeks and I think most of our problems were a product of staying for so long, meaning small irritations eventually become major annoyances.
One of our biggest issues with the camp was that Romanian staff were treated much worse than Internationals, mainly owing to the fact that International staff were seen as more valuable and there were occasions when Romanian staff were sent home early for seemingly unfair reasons (you can read more about this in our blog – Camp Life Becomes a Drag). We had become close to all of the other staff and we really hated seeing them treated badly whilst we were treated well, it sapped our motivation and created a fairly unpleasant environment behind the scenes.
As the weeks went by there were fewer and fewer staff members and a greater number of Internationals vs Romanians, which meant that we began taking on more responsibilities. We started to find life on camp increasingly hard as we were getting more and more involved and days began to get really long and tiring, with most days starting around 8am and not ending until 11pm. I guess we learned something about ourselves there as the routine slowly wore us down and just keeping our ‘happy faces’ on over our tired eyes became difficult. There were several members of staff there however who were up at 6am and on camp until 11pm every single day and still had the charisma and energy to smile and entertain the kids better than we ever could. Our hats are off!
Whilst we initially got on great with all of the other staff members, living and working with the same people 24/7 for several weeks in such a high pressure environment was always going to make some arguments inevitable. We had a couple of arguments with other staff in the final weeks of our stay, which looking back at them now seem petty and completely out of character for us and them. I feel like it was a combination of a ‘big brother’ effect from living in such close proximity and the tiredness caused by such long days, all of which built up over the weeks.
The general fatigue of repeating the same roll of activities every few days for the last 7 weeks also meant that it was hard to remember that for each kid this camp this was their first experience of it all and this camp was probably the one thing they’d looked forward to most all year. I wish I could have had the same level of enthusiasm for each and every camp and the energetic charisma that they deserved, but in truth it’s not easy. Some of the other staff members were truly amazing and you’d see them out there leading a dance that they’d done every day for the last 3 months with the same bouncy enthusiasm and massive smiles on their faces that they had the first time. These guys were built for camp, but I was not.
So did I enjoy the experience? Yes, but I wouldn’t do it again.
If you’re considering trying out something similar, then you should definitely give it a go! It’s gonna be an awesome experience either way and you’re sure to have a lot of fun, try things you’ve never tried before and meet people you never would otherwise. I would however say that if you’re considering staying for longer than a month or returning for a second time, then you should be sure that you really love being around kids and enjoy these types of intense environments, otherwise the novelty may soon wear off and leave you with a less than happy face.
Happy Faces contact info:
Special thanks to Vlad for inspiring me to keep on writing. I hope I returned the favour in some small way for you to follow your aspirations.
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