Teaching Special Needs Students in India

The world is becoming more and more globalised and there are so many reasons to get out and go see it. From backpacking to working as a digital nomad, the world provides endless opportunities of experience and adventures.

Exploring the world and giving back to a community in need is one of the most special and unique ways to see new places. The connections and potential impact you can make on a community makes this way of traveling very wonderful indeed. Volunteering abroad, when done respectfully and wisely, is one of the most meaningful ways to travel.

Back in 2013, I took part in volunteering overseas. This was my first time leaving Australia and going overseas and I chose India as my destination.

This was an incredible to dive into the deep end, so to speak, of traveling. Now, after spending 4 years abroad, I would have done a few things differently in regards to volunteering abroad. However, my experience gave me new insight and new understanding to traveling and volunteering abroad.

Who did I volunteer with?

Since it was my first time abroad, I volunteered through a big-named company called i-to-i volunteering. Now, I wouldn’t recommend using a company like this. Their volunteering fee doesn’t entirely go back to the community. Doing on the ground research and grassroots research is a better way to go with volunteering. A not-for-profit organisation is a much more genuine way of engaging with a community.

If you are keen to volunteer, consider looking into websites such as Workaway or Moving Worlds. These are more organic connections of places in need. Better yet, travel to a destination and look for something on arrival. It is more risky, but more worthwhile.

Where did I volunteer?

I was placed at a school for students with special needs in Kerala, on the south west coast of India. Although I was lacking being experienced in traveling and spending time abroad, I was certainly knowledgeable in this field. I have a degree in primary school teaching and plenty of experience in the special needs sector.

My time at the school was certainly valuable. I feel like I did make some impact, connecting with the students through art and games. Of course, the other mistake I made in my naive state was that I only stayed for a month. Therefore, my impact was fleeting and impermanent. Short term volunteering certainly has its benefits and I gained a lot from my experience. If I had had more time and experience abroad, I certainly would have stayed longer. We live and learn through experiences such as these!

Despite my short stay, I did feel that my presence was valued at this school. The teachers running the school liked the way I engaged with the students, despite the language barrier and the general communication barrier given their disabilities. It could have been way more confronting had I not had experience in this field. Therefore, I really recommend volunteering in a field you are comfortable and confident with. This isn’t the time to dabble in something new!

What were the highlights?

Of course, my trip to India was as much about traveling as volunteering. There is point trying to deny this. I went abroad because I wanted an adventure, as much as I wanted to help a community. Certainly, the adventures I received were more significant than the impact I made on the community. This is why I say that volunteering abroad benefits the volunteer more than anything.

In India, I got to try so many new things. I had my eyes opened in the most remarkable ways. I gained endless perspective, not just in teaching or the special needs sector, but in life. From taking part in a yoga class to chatting to locals in cafes, to trekking in the mountains and taking a tour on a houseboat, I truly fell in love with India. I made new friends, I felt new emotions, and I felt a fundamental shift in my appreciation for life.

I can’t say if the school, the students, or the community felt any of this as strongly as I did by my presence. But I will be forever grateful for finding myself in that community.

I would have done a few things differently, knowing what I do now after four years abroad. However, I wouldn’t have had these four years abroad without that first trip to India. No experience is ever wasted when you are in a new country.

What are my top tips on volunteering abroad?

To sum up each point I’ve made and each lesson I learnt from my past experience in India, take these tips into consideration before volunteering abroad.

  • Don’t go through a fee-paying company. Do take a grassroots or not-for-profit organisation approach.
  • Don’t expect to make the world of difference in less than a month. Do stay long term if you can, or accept that you won’t change the world in a month.
  • Don’t think of yourself as a saviour to that community. Do reap the benefits this experience gives you and use them to make yourself a better person.
  • Don’t launch yourself into volunteering abroad without prior travel experience. Do have a wider cultural understanding and experience abroad first.
  • Don’t just try your hand at something new. Do volunteer in an area or field where you have knowledge or expertise.


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