A keenness for a family adventure and to experience another culture saw Melbourne primary teacher Julie Spencer, her husband and children spend 2015 on the island of Korsae in the Federated States of Micronesia.
As an early grades teacher trainer for the Kosrae FSM National Department of Education, Spencer developed an English curriculum and resources for third and fourth grade students based on texts about island life, including books that she wrote and illustrated herself.
“I was there as part of a larger program which was part of the Asian Development Bank to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes and pedagogy and assessments and so this 12-month position was really to work with teachers to show them more engaging classroom activities,” Spencer says.
What few text books the schools had were American, with no contextual hook to the children’s island life at all.
“So, I started going into classes and bringing a week of activities.
"I went to a different school each day, and went to the same three teachers at each school and I wrote little books and photo copied them, and my daughter illustrated them,” Spencer says.
“They would be about turtles or hermit crabs or dolphins, or riding in the back of a truck – all these quintessential island experiences.
“Then I showed teachers different engaging activities.
"Rather than the ‘teacher reads the line, students read the line’, ... the worst kind of very slow, boring learning, I showed them more engaging ways to get the kids talking about their text and responding to their text and how to build the weeks’ activities around one little book.
“And by doing so they’d be learning how to speak in English about their own lives on the island in a more relevant manner.”
Spencer says the experience was a wonderful opportunity.
“I’d travelled quite a lot, but I’d never been to such an isolated location – so that isolation and the simplicity of life was quite a big shock for us all.
“It was very quiet, and while people have enough to eat, there were levels of poverty that we were not used to seeing."
While the many extracurricular pursuits were fun, Spencer explains it was her work with the kids that were a highlight of her time on Korsae.
“The children were really beautiful, so being in classes with these lovely kids was really fantastic.
“With EAL pedagogy we did lots of songs, and seeing kids in the street and they’d start singing the songs to me, those sorts of things stand out."
Being able to spend time with her family was also a major plus.
“Life here is so busy, and the working day was 8 until 3 and I was a 10-minute bike ride from the office, so I could be with my family from not long after 3 until 10 o’clock at night – that was wonderful.”
Since returning to Melbourne, Spencer has landed a position as a Literacy Lead Teacher at Preston North East Primary.
It's a job she loves and she credits the skills and experience she gained on her volunteer assignment as being crusial in helping her land the dream role.
“I was a classroom teacher before the year away and I’d done a little bit of lecturing at Melbourne Uni, but I applied for this leading teacher job while I was away and got it.
“I think the experience that I had working with classrooms and having the view of whole schools and whole curriculum really favoured my application, rather than simply coming from another classroom.”
Spencer has no hesitation in recommending others volunteer with AVID.
“I think it’s a remarkable experience and AVID is very, very supportive of volunteers beforehand and during the whole process.
“There’s remarkable resources available to keep you there and keep you working and keep you happy and I think stepping outside of your very comfortable, often very busy, very affluent existence is really important and very rewarding.”
* Spencer’s volunteering assignment was part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, which is an Australian Government initiative. If you’d like to learn more about AVID, click here.