Volunteering at GEMS

Nestled in the hills on the outskirts of Mussoorie, the Garhwal English Medium School (GEMS) provides a high quality education to some 210 students aged 3-14 from villages across the valley area. Whilst staffed by Indian teaching staff, GEMS also welcomes volunteers from across the world on both short and long voluntary placements.

What is GEMS?

Whole school morning assembly
Whole school morning assembly
GEMS was founded six years ago by Lori and her husband Kunwar to tackle the issue of port quality education within the village communities in which they lived. Lori had originally come from Canada to undertake research for her anthropology PhD, fallen in love with India (and Kunwar!) and never left. Seeing an opportunity to contribute to the community that she had recently joined, Lori set about establishing a quality educational experience, delivered in the medium of English, for 13 students. Their school’s beginning was very humble, with the first few years delivered in a cow shed (which originally had the cows still in it!) before relocating to the present site near Kempty Falls several years later.

Today, GEMS is going from strength to strength with students distributed across classes LKG to IX, with an additional class being added to the top annually as those.first, senior students progress. Their curriculum covers the full range offered in India, including mathematics, science (environmental science for lower classes), Hindi, computing and general knowledge. The majority of these are delivered through the medium of English, with English and English Grammar also included in the breadth of subjects offered.

Do you need to be a qualified teacher?

No. Anyone with a willingness to support children in their learning can be a part of the GEMS community, irrespective of the length of your stay.

What is the volunteer role?

Lori leads an English reading lesson
Lori leads an English reading lesson
Depending on your skills and experience, you could find yourself supporting a teacher in the delivery of their lesson, leading sessions with small groups of students or taking a class of your own. All depends on what you feel able to do and the specific needs at the time. Regardless of your role, rest assured you will be in a prime position to make a significant impact on the lives of the students of the school. If you’re looking for an easy ride, this isn’t the place for you – come ready to work and don’t be afraid to share your ideas.

How can I prepare to volunteer?

Our personal opinion is that if you are going to lead classes or teach specific grammar points or Mathematics then you should either get some training in advance or stick rigidly to a set syllabus as it is possible to do more harm than good. Re-teaching something that has been taught incorrectly can be very difficult as children hold on to these misconceptions tightly and with the language barrier it’s virtually impossible to undo. There are lots of resources available on the internet that can help with this, including various courses in teaching (including TESL/TEFL) that can give you core techniques and an accreditation at the same time. Don’t forget also the wealth of resource and experience available at GEMS – material and people – all of which is at your disposal.

What will a typical school day look like?

Class Five students selecting reading books from the school library
Class Five students selecting reading books from the school library
Anyone who has spent some time in a school will tell you that there’s no such thing as a typical day! Generally, however, the day will begin with breakfast at Lori’s home in Sainji where you live whilst on placement before a 30 minute walk or 15 minute jeep ride to the school for assembly – in the summer, this is at 8:00 am. Following the 15 minute assembly, lessons begin, each of which is about 40 minutes long. Break follows lesson 3 at around 10:00 am for 15 minutes, before two further lessons leading to the 30 minute lunch break which begins at 11:20 am. Lesson six begins at 11:50 am with lesson eight concluding at 1:45 pm, after which students have 40 minutes prep to complete homework before walking home or going on the school bus. After this time you’re free to do as you please – head back to the village to relax or prepare for the next day’s lessons, pop along to nearby Kempty Falls or Kandikhal – the choice is up to you.

We were able to visit GEMS for two weeks thanks to the generosity of Voluntary Projects Overseas who offer short and long-term volunteering opportunities for people worldwide. For more detailed information about this and all their projects, please visit their website.

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