Testimonials on Henan Trip

Remember as a child when your daily routine at school was disturbed, a visitor came from a far off land to tell you something. The maths lesson was cut short, the spelling test was delayed or forgotten about. For an hour or two the humdrumness of school was forgotten and the anticipation of something out of the ordinary was before you.

Children all over the world can get excited over the expectation of something new and the children in a small rural school in Henan are no different.

It was my presence for 2 days in April 2012 along with 12 other volunteers from Stepping Stones that caused 203 primary school children to get very excited. The anticipation of the children was breathtaking, you could see that they were so full of excitement as we arrived that the whole school seemed to shaking with the energy emanating from these small beings.

Stepping Stones is a charity based in Shanghai that provides English teachers to schools for migrant children. Stepping Stones had been asked by a local charity in Henan to visit a village school and provide some lessons in English as well as a craft/art class and a PE class.

I had planned out my lessons very carefully and I was also excited and full of anticipation. I arrived at my classroom 10 minutes before the class began in order to prepare my things and write up some key words on the blackboard. There to greet me was not only the teachers but also 32 pupils all sitting at their desks. They were so eager to begin that I was a little worried that I might disappoint them.

I have been working with Chinese students for almost 3 years and I know that it sometimes takes time for the children to get over their natural bashfulness in front of a strange foreign teacher however my class were extra keen and jumped right in with practicing the new words and learning how to roll their “rs”. The local teachers were keen to help and my lessons flew by too quickly for me.

The PE class was a bit difficult to plan. Someone (she shall be nameless but I know who she is) came up with the idea of me teaching the children a Scottish dance. I, for my sins, have taught Scottish country dancing to expats for several years. This task of teaching consenting adults is not very easy but always a lot of fun so ignoring the fact that normally my dancing students are fluent in English I focused on the fun part and agreed to teach the children. I must say that the chaos I created along with the dust cloud from 203 children spinning each other around on a playground was fun. I don’t think I will win any prizes from the Scottish Country Dance Society for the display but there was laughter.

We also taught each class a song based on our English lesson. My theme was clothes and colours. The children did very well in the class and learned all the words to the song but the tune proved rather difficult. I felt very bad for them and put it down to them not being used to western musical forms. Remembering some information that traditional Chines music has only 5 notes – Do, Ray, Me, Fa, So and blaming the children’s inability to learn the tune down to that was easier than the possibility that perhaps my teaching was at fault. I heard my pupils gaily joining in during the chorus of a version of “Old MacDonald” and I began to really doubt my teaching.

The highlight of any visit for a child must be getting a gift and our visit concluded with giving the children new pencil cases and notebooks. I coached mine very well, all waited patiently and did not grab for the presents. I did not anticipate that the notebooks would require my autograph. 32 notebooks were all inscribed and as I was finishing my class children from other classes came to get my autograph. I now can understand the stress that celebrities are under and I fully sympathise although I can understand how intoxicating it must be to spread such joy just by turning up. If you want to experience the rock star treatment then sign up for the next Stepping Stones trip.

– Debbie Hoggan


This was not a volunteer trip. In my mind, it felt more like a vacation, with all the planning and details taken care of by Stepping Stones, a not-for-profit agency that organizes volunteers to teach English to Chinese elementary school students. I had the tremendous pleasure and privilege of traveling to Henan province to teach at a rural school with nine other teachers, including Corinne Hua, the energetic and humourous director of Stepping Stones.

The high-speed train brought us to our destination and then two vans brought us to our hotel, the nicest one in the county and while not luxurious, it was more than suitable. I fell asleep quickly, looking forward to the next day’s teaching.

The next morning, we all pitched in to finish a craft lesson and sort out the teaching materials before piling into the vans to drive over to the school. We were greeted by a huge red banner welcoming us and a throng of excited, shy, eager, noisy and curious students. If you ever want to feel like a celebrity, you need to volunteer teach for Stepping Stones.

I had been assigned to the Grade Sixes, all 41 of them. Before you start feeling sorry for me, please let me state for the record that these students were the most respectful learners I have ever had the privilege to teach. If the sight of them all rising when I entered the classroom and saying in unison, “Good morning, teacher” doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will.

The time absolutely flew by. It truly did. I now know why they invented this cliché. I couldn’t believe that lunchtime came so quickly. Once more, we all piled into the vans to be taken to a local restaurant where our host had generously ordered a huge lunch. Even this self-described picky eater left the table stuffed.

The afternoon went by even faster than the morning had. It was spent teaching the names of countries, emotions, leisure activities and the song “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. Nothing like the sound of 41 students stomping their feet all together! By the time we left late afternoon, we were pleasantly tired and ready for our banquet dinner, again supplied by our kind host. After a lavish meal, those of us who could keep our eyes open, went out for a well-deserved foot massage. During the walk, I delighted in the lack of traffic. Such a novelty!

The next morning we were back at the school for our final hours of teaching. By now, the students were more comfortable with their English and keen to ask us questions. Some of my female students asked if they could hug me and two other students, one boy, one girl, presented me with little handcrafted objects made of paper. I was touched beyond words.

After the questions, it was performance time. Each class had been rehearsing a song and now it was time to show off our stuff. The younger grades were completely adorable. I was very pleased with my grade. They sang and completed the accompanying actions with gusto.

The next activity proved to be a lot more daunting-Scottish dancing! How’s that for cross-cultural exposure? My Grade Six boys and girls were visibly horrified, but secretly thrilled, at the prospect of having to hold hands with the opposite sex. After lining up the whole student body in the schoolyard (no small feat right there), we followed our fellow teacher through a series of whirls and swings and twirls. The dust we all kicked up was incredible. That school will never be the same again. I chuckle to myself when I think that the legacy we left a remote rural school in China was a Scottish country-dance.

After long good-byes with our students and innumerable photos, the Stepping Stones teachers went on a brief tour of the village. The rural scenery and quiet was a welcome contrast to Shanghai. One of the local teachers invited us into her home. Again, I was moved by the generosity and hospitality of the people. After the village, it was an equally short outing in the old part of town. Everywhere we went, people stopped and stared and smiled. Tourists are rare enough in Henan, let alone Western ones. Yet again, I felt like a celebrity.

We were taken back to the train station and our high-speed trip back to Shanghai. Any regrets? Our two-day stay was too short, and there aren’t more people joining Stepping Stones. Anybody who is interested in soul-satisfying, meaningful volunteering that is also incredibly fun needs to see what Stepping Stones has to offer.

Canadian Elizabeth Patel moved to Shanghai August 2010 as a supporting spouse. Mother to three teens, she is an active volunteer with SEA and Stepping Stones. Elizabeth enjoys seeing what Shanghai has to offer and writes a blog about her adventures

– Elizabeth Patel