Ana Paula Pinto, 55, is a Portuguese education volunteer, born in Mozambique. Paula first volunteered 20 years ago, and last year lent her expertise to the Student Participation Initiative project in Myanmar, where she was one of two international volunteers, working alongside two national and twenty-nine youth volunteers.
After clocking up 27 years as a teacher, Paula remains passionate about helping children back into education – she’s now returned to Myanmar, helping to improve teacher’s English language skills in Mon State.
I think there’s nothing like seeing the happiness of the children, seeing a smile light up their faces. Those have been my favourite moments over my time as a volunteer.
I first volunteered with VSO 20 years ago in Guinea Bissau, and then Mozambique, after seeing an advert in the newspaper.
Eventually, after five years, I had to return to my teaching career in Portugal. Twenty years on, the birth rate has dropped in Portugal. The primary schools are closing and there are fewer children at secondary school. There is less demand for teachers, so when I asked the Ministry of Education if I could volunteer, they said I could go.
I volunteered on the Student Participation Initiative in Mon State, Myanmar, from August 2018 until July 2019. The aim was to reduce the dropout rate of secondary school students, regardless of their background. Everyone wants to give their children the best education, and this alone can help to overcome differences. Even if there are small disagreements, you are all united behind the same goal.
I trained teachers on how to run clubs and extracurricular activities and explained how this might encourage students to stay in school. I felt that if students could choose their own after-school activities, like library club, or football club, they would want to go to school. I also worked on raising awareness on the importance of education. As children start to enjoy school, they can push their mother, father and wider community to support their education.
In both Myanmar and Portugal, there are similar problems, like having a lack of resources and too much bureaucracy and reports. I understand the teachers here – we fight the same battles. However, the relationship between teachers and students is more respectful in Myanmar; in Portugal we have more behavioural problems.
Even after just two or three meetings with the teachers, I started to see them become more open with me and share more. Over the year, I saw small changes.
Little by little people started to understand that it’s better for children to stay in school. They began to realise that education is a chance to improve their family.
Youth volunteers helped us show parents why education was important. Before joining the project, the youth volunteers were not used to talking in front of people. Then, in their roles with the organisation, they had to go into the communities and talk to the parents. Over the year, I could see their self-esteem and confidence increase.
It’s rewarding to be able to share my teaching experience, but it’s also rewarding to receive knowledge and then talk with my students in Portugal, explain to them how things are similar and different in Myanmar.
I believe that together we can make the world better. Sometimes we only see bad things in the news and it makes us feel that the world is a bad place. The reality is very different. To generalise and say, I don’t like these people or I don’t like this country, it usually means we don’t fully understand.
I learned so much as a volunteer that when I returned to Portugal I realised my behaviour and the way I teach had changed a little. I was more able to bring new ideas to the classroom.
I think of volunteering as an adventure: there are good parts and bad parts, but the positive outweighs the negative and ultimately volunteering has helped me become more resilient.