Volunteering at a Chinese migrant school


Before I arrived in Shanghai, I heard about an opportunity to teach English at a migrant school and immediately knew it was something I wanted to do. Through a non-profit organization called Stepping Stones, I, along with many other volunteers, teach English to grade school students at various migrant schools in Shanghai. Shanghai actually has one of the highest concentrations of migrants in China. These migrants generally move from farmlands and agricultural areas into cities. In recent years, the government has created many new migrant schools to provide the children with access to education they may otherwise not be receiving. In theory, the idea is a good one, but there are still many underlying issues affecting the quality of education these students are receiving.

Stepping Stones placed me at Huabo Lixing Hang School, an elementary school about an hour away from campus. When I first arrived, I immediately noticed that the area was much poorer than the area I lived in and went to school in, and its inhabitants looked different from Shanghainese people. Most migrants, which I find easily distinguishable from the Shanghainese, come from inland provinces such as Anhui, Hunan and Sichuan.

The school, chartered by the government, clearly stood out from the rest of the environment. Its modern architecture seemed out of place among the poorer buildings and shops surrounding it. The classes were packed with students. A normal class size is around 60. This made teaching English incredibly difficult because the students were often distracted by their many classmates, or had trouble understanding what was occurring at the front of the classroom.

The students, though clearly excited to learn, were very rowdy and greatly varied in their English abilities. This is common characteristic in migrant schools, as students who weren’t born in Shanghai have had a range of educational experiences in their hometowns. One of the Chinese volunteers who works with me in the classroom actually told me that her elementary school was nothing like this. She said everyone was always well-behaved because parents reinforced their children’s behavior at home. Migrant children, whose parents often work late, have very different home lives, and these differences translate into the classroom.

I’ve only volunteered twice so far, and although the experiences are exhausting, they’re also extremely rewarding and fun. I know that the difference I’m making by interacting with the students and providing them with more opportunities to practice their English, though small, will be beneficial in the long run. I’m also taking a sociology class at my university in Shanghai and one of the topics we have covered is Chinese migrants, so it’s really interesting to see the intersection of what I’m learning in class with one of the extracurricular activities I’m involved in.

When you’re abroad, it’s easy to get wrapped up in traveling and the novelty of an unfamiliar city and forget all the other activities you can get involved in. But getting involved while abroad will not only allow you to see another country’s take on extracurricular activities, it will also open your eyes to the happenings and opportunities in another region of the world.