Caroline Pitcairn, continuing professional development facilitator, Malawi

Primary teacher Caroline received support from her school when she decided to volunteer abroad with VSO in northern Malawi. Here she describes her voluntary work the warmth and generosity of her colleagues and neighbours and her sometimes very muddy commute to work...

A taste of Africa leads to a sabbatical with VSO

I went to Ghana a few summers back with Girlguiding Scotland. I loved every minute of it and decided that I wanted more. One of my friends had recently applied for VSO and told me all about it. I sent away for an application and eventually filled it in about three months later. My school and council were great; my head teacher told me to go for it. It was agreed that I could take 19 months’ leave and return to my school after my placement.

Adapting to life in Malawi

Upon arriving in Malawi we were given a week’s intensive training by VSO. This included language training, although I didn’t really need to learn the local language as I was mainly speaking in English. I stayed with another volunteer for my first few weeks, which was great as she had been in the country for nine months – she really showed me the ropes and helped me out with the culture. The people I worked with were also fab and helped me get into the swing of things.  

Malawi is a really beautiful place and the people are so warm and friendly. I loved the relaxed lifestyle and the fact that people and families come before work. So many people have such difficult lives and money and food are always constant challenges, yet they would have given me the food from their own plate (and often did). They really made me feel welcome.

Improving the quality of education

My job title in Malawi was Continuing Professional Development Facilitator. I was mainly working with primary education advisers (PEAs) – they’re in charge of the professional development of teachers in up to 18 schools in their area. I was helping the PEAs to improve their teacher development centres, which are purpose built buildings that demonstrate best practise. Teachers visit the centres to borrow books, attend training sessions and get inspiration for good teaching resources.

My role also involved designing and facilitating training sessions. These covered setting up school libraries, record keeping, producing and using teaching materials, management styles, special educational needs and subject based workshops for maths, science and language. For many attendees these participatory sessions were a totally new experience: they were used to just being talked at.

While I was there, Malawi was rolling out a new curriculum that aimed to change teaching methods, making them much more user friendly. There was a strong emphasis on participatory methods and for some teachers this was a real change, as ‘chalk and talk’ was the only method they’d ever experienced. I supported teachers and PEAs in using the new curriculum and adopting new ways of working – things like splitting children into small groups in order to make large classes more manageable. 


I was based in Rumphi, with is in the north of Malawi and I was also covering the districts for Mzimba North and Mzimba South – a pretty big area! I was travelling long distances on my motorbike initially and then by car – not easy in the rainy season with mud, mud and more mud!

Dealing with time management could be very challenging. I’d turn up at a meeting and have to wait for two hours before others came along to join me. But I did learn pretty quickly to deal with it and even find it a bonus if the meeting started only 30 minutes late!

Caroline’s impact

I feel that I did make an impact, especially to the people that I worked more closely with. I worked hard to encourage the schools and advisers to learn from each other and to exchange ideas instead of going it alone. For some this was a really difficult thing to do and it took time to get them to share their ideas, but in the end they all saw the benefits of it. I think that modelling behaviour – or acting as I would do anyway – gave people a positive role model to follow. I received lots of little comments on my good time keeping skills, my ability to admit to being wrong and to ask for help when I needed it – all things that are rare among people in rural Malawi.

I’m sure that my own skills have developed more than those of the people I was working with and I’ve learnt more from the whole experience then they have from me. My skills in facilitating have improved with all of the training that I conducted and I have learnt to work more as a team player (which I actually found quite difficult before). 

Coming home

Since returning home I’ve been lucky enough to go back into my previous job. I’ve been busy linking our school with one in Malawi and have sent lots of letters and video clips back and forth. The school I’m working in is keen to develop our international global education, which the children have been really enjoying and benefiting from.

I would definitely recommend volunteering – you gain so much and get to meet so many diverse, wonderful people. It really is a life changing experience.

How to apply

Interested in volunteering with VSO? Find out what you need to apply and begin your application process now.