Chemist tries life-changing experiment

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Voluntary work was a key ingredient in the change from one career to another for Helen Armstrong, who now knows she really wants to teach, says Douglas Blane

elen Armstrong had done some voluntary work with young people before she went out to Ghana for four months at the beginning of this year, but she had never taught. So she was a little surprised to find herself taking classes from her second day at the Amazing Grace school in Gomoa Afransi.

"I had no idea what to expect," says the 24-year-old chemistry Masters graduate from Glasgow's leafy suburbs. "I didn't even know the teachers didn't do experiments because they had no equipment."

Nine months earlier, after a year's experience of working in a laboratory, Helen had a firm conviction that chemistry research and development offered too little human contact to satisfy her as a career. "It was interesting and I used to enjoy the challenges. We all had our own particular problems to solve.

"In the end, I decided I wanted to work with young people."

Volunteering offered a way of taking the first steps on this new career path and gaining experience of places and people different to those she had encountered at Hutchesons' Grammar, at Edinburgh University or at home in Eaglesham.

"A friend of mine was doing voluntary youth work in Edinburgh's Canongate,"

she explains. "So I rang up ProjectScotland and asked if I could get involved."

Working with children of all ages, some with very challenging behaviour, soon taught Helen what did not work. It took longer, she says, to discover what did.

"I love music and wanted to share it with the kids. I play the saxophone in a ska band. So I tried to teach some of the really young ones to play the recorder. That was my first experience of teaching.

"It was hard to control their excitement. They created havoc. But I started gaining confidence through working with them. I would test different methods to control them. When I found one that worked it was like 'Wow! I can do this'."

Regular meetings with a ProjectScotland mentor helped to reinforce her learning process, she says. "There was a lot of supervision until I had a better idea of what I was doing."

Older children presented Helen with a new set of problems, she says, particularly the boys not in education, employment or training. "I had no idea what to talk to them about, or how to handle the way they sometimes spoke to me.

"One thing that helped a lot were days out, when we could get to know each other in an informal setting. Gradually I managed to build a rapport with them."

The Canongate placement lasted six months and towards the end of it, Helen made a successful application to ProjectScotland's personal development fund to finance the costs of travelling to Ghana for more voluntary work.

"I had decided to be a teacher but I wanted to go abroad and gain different experiences first. I liked the idea of taking the skills I had learned through volunteering and using them somewhere else."

So, in February this year, Helen found herself teaching science to junior secondary pupils at the Amazing Grace school.

Trying to convey science by drawing experiments on a board was very difficult, she says. "I used to devise wee demonstrations, like showing how water pressure varies with depth by using a container with holes in it, or how levers work by getting the kids to jump on planks."

For such an inexperienced teacher, discipline could sometimes be a problem.

But the importance of education in the children's minds gave Helen an accidentally discovered stratagem at least as effective as the cane the other teachers used.

"Sometimes, if the kids got really difficult, I would pack up my books and say, 'If you don't want me to teach you, I'm leaving'. There would be a stunned silence, then they would chase after me and call out, 'Please come back. Please teach us.'

"One thing I had learnt in youth work was to get the kids to devise the rules themselves. So we did that. They came up with sanctions, like having to stand on one foot or kneel on the floor, which was all gravel, for five minutes.

"If they fell asleep in class - because they were working after school with their parents and were often really tired - they had to run once around the compound."

Recruited as a science teacher, Helen soon found herself also responsible for English classes. "I had to teach myself first. I remember a few lessons on diphthongs, which I didn't know much about then, or in fact now. Quite soon the kids were all talking with accents like mine."

The experience of living and teaching in Ghana, which included a bout of malaria, has bittersweet memories. "It was hard but rewarding," Helen says.

"It got lonely at times.

"Now I'm back, though, I really miss the people, especially the kids. There was one wee boy who spoke hardly any English. We just sort of talked at each other in our own language. He was lovely.

"I just wonder what's going to happen to them all. I really hope they do well."

Most of them had high aspirations, she says. "But a lot of them wouldn't be able to go on to senior secondary school, never mind university. They would follow their parents on to the farms.

"I remember one girl told me she wanted to be a scientist. I liked that."

The name for white people in Ghana is obroni, which means "person from over the horizon".

"You would think, in a country where the slave ships used to go, that the people would hate us. But they don't seem to. When you're walking along a street, the young people call out 'Hey, Obroni', and they smile at you. It is really nice."

Coming back to Scotland has been a reverse culture shock, she says. "Ghana is in my mind a lot. If I go to buy something, I convert it into their money, and it sometimes comes to a year's salary."

She frowns, staring into the distance. "I am glad I did it though. I know people who went straight from school to university and then into teaching.

I think it's better if you can bring a bit more experience to the job.

"I know now that I really want to be a teacher and that it is something I can do. I've learnt so much this past year."

Helen is well aware, though, that not all of this learning will transfer directly to Scottish schools. "If I packed up my books and said, 'Right.

I'm leaving', I'm pretty sure the children wouldn't run after me here, like they did in Ghana." She smiles. "They would just sit there at their desks and wave goodbye to me."


ProjectScotland, the Scottish volunteering organisation for 16- to 25-year olds, started in May a year ago and already has almost 600 active volunteers, says its marketing director. Derek Scobie.

"ProjectScotland placements can last anywhere from three to 12 months.

"After six months, a volunteer can apply for funding for further development. It might be an academic or vocational course, further training or a new experience in a field they want to pursue. Helen is a great example of that."

Some young people have been funded to pursue singing tuition, forestry courses and driving lessons for community workers. So far, however, only a few have taken advantage of the organisation's personal development fund.

"Our mentors work with volunteers to identify suitable opportunities and help them to apply to the fund," says Mr Scobie. "We want as many of our volunteers as possible to do so. After they leave ProjectScotland, we are very keen that they keep on developing themselves and opening new doors." 08458 416225

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