It can benefit you, your school and the developing world. And the evidence is that it makes you a better teacher. Jonathan Milne asks, what's not to love about volunteering in Ethiopia?
When the rest of the world was looking back to the attacks on New York's Twin Towers this week, Ethiopia was welcoming the start of the new millennium.
The African nation's use of the Julian calendar is just the first culture shock awaiting teachers who travel there as VSO volunteers, to help with ambitious educational changes that seek to bring the country into the 21st century.
The clock starts at dawn, so midday becomes six o'clock. Visitors must acquire a taste for injera, a flat bread resembling a dirty dish sponge, and berberi, the acrid chilli-based spice that adorns every dish. Don't mention the famine: the friendly Ethiopians will show a rare scowl when a backward tourist asks if Ethiopian Airlines serves in-flight meals.
Perhaps the biggest shock is the lack of value placed on education and teachers in a country where nothing is needed more. A study by Nigel Parsons, a Gloucestershire teacher working with VSO in Addis Ababa, shows that three out of five teachers would leave the profession if they could find another job. "Teaching is often seen as a profession of last resort," he says.
Tigist Avega, 38, is retraining as a nurse after teaching for 15 years. The 770 birr (pound;42) a month she is paid as a rural teacher is not enough to support Tigist and her daughter. Her pupils are kept home from school to fetch water and look after the family animals. When Tigist visits families to ask them to send their children to school, parents set dogs on her or pelt her with stones. "People give nurses respect, but not teachers," she says. "It is because nurses give them immediate relief from illness, but with teachers they cannot see the results so soon."
VSO is today launching a campaign to recruit 350 teachers and other education workers to volunteer abroad, in countries including Ethiopia, next year. The volunteers' work is as much about changing attitudes as improving literacy and numeracy. It is a delicate business: the government is sensitive about aid organisations that try to dictate how it teaches its children, yet it builds a large hole into its finances each year to be filled by overseas donors.
Asmaru Berehun, the minister responsible for educational equity, has her office in the Stalinist education department HQ, where you have to take your own soap and toilet paper to the bathrooms. "We are a poor country," she says. "We need assistance. But we are not talking just about money we need the real assistance of committed personalities like Liza."
She is talking about Liza Darroch, 59, a Gloucestershire FE lecturer spearheading the department's work to bring education to six million children who have never set foot inside a classroom.
Tall, blonde and uncompromising, Liza decided to volunteer at the end of 10 years in which she had been married, widowed, and fought breast cancer and kidney failure.
It was time, she says, to do something "just for me" but with her drive and experience, her insistence on travelling to unstable corners of the country against all advice, she is also just what the doctor ordered for Ethiopia. She would like to see the government become less reliant on overseas assistance but, till then: "I'm near enough retired so, damn it, I have some skills and experience that graduates from Addis Ababa University won't yet have."
VSO invests people, rather than money a welcome change after some of the misguided charity that Ethiopia has received. Only 24 per cent of girls complete elementary school, and 41 per cent of boys. As few as 15 per cent of children are enrolled in school in remote and inhospitable regions such as Afar, where a group of British diplomats was kidnapped in March.
Save the Children UK has set up 20 "alternative basic education" schools in the similarly troubled Somali region, which close in the dry season as communities move their herds in search of water. Kim Smith, 43, a primary teacher from Newcastle, has persuaded the local education authority in Robe to buy her a horse to get from school to school. Another teacher, Clare Gardiner from London, woke to find a lion's paw print outside her door in Arba Minch one day, a python on another.
Clare, 28, grew up planning to follow in the footsteps of her father, a teacher who had volunteered in Nigeria in the 1960s.
"He used to always talk about Nigeria, to the point that it became a family joke: 'Oh, daddy's talking about Nigeria again'," she says. "He spoke about the friends he had made, and the influence it had on him as a person and as a teacher. I came to realise that he and my mother had given me a privileged background, and I wanted to give something back."
Evidence shows that taking time out from teaching in Britain to travel and work abroad is beneficial for teachers and their schools at home. A Southampton University study, to be published by VSO next month, will show that nine out of 10 teachers returned having rethought their teaching philosophy
Jonathan Milne travelled to Ethiopia with VSO
GOVERNMENT COMES ON BOARD
When Susan Quinn (left) completes her two years in the balmy northern Ethiopian city of Mekele, she will return to Ireland with a healthy glow, an Ethiopian boyfriend and a guaranteed job.
Because of the inspiring difference teachers can make for children in the developing world and back home, the Republic of Ireland holds their jobs open for five years and contributes to their pensions.
Now, Britain is recognising the value of encouraging teachers and heads to volunteer abroad. Gordon Brown has made international development a priority, and the government is helping fund a pilot to send eight heads to Namibia and Rwanda.
Susan, 31, has gone from teaching in inner-city Dublin to helping hundreds of poorly-paid teachers who are the only hope for the thousands of orphans flooding down from the bloodied border with Eritrea.
For the first time, Mekele classrooms have colourful posters on the walls. The teachers feel valued. And children see school as a better option than shining shoes on streets.
"When I go back I will be a better teacher than when I came," she says. "If schools don't recognise that experience, it's their loss."
Gap-year students seeking the sunshine after finishing their A-levels need not apply: VSO, the international development charity, wants grown-ups with experience.
* About a quarter of volunteers (24 per cent) are still in their 20s, but 46 per cent of British volunteers are aged over 50.
* Of the 1,500 VSO volunteers last year nearly 600 were British, and 540 were teachers.
* Volunteers are working in 34 countries. Teachers are needed in Guyana in south America; Ethiopia, Eritrea and Ghana in Africa; China and Cambodia in Asia; and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific. You will receive training, flights, accommodation, pension contributions, and a living allowance. The monthly allowance, pegged to local wages, ranges from 7,300 Pakistan rupees (pound;70) to 4,790 South African rand (pound;455).