Playing For Good: My Time As A Volunteer Teacher

Giving & Gaming

People volunteer for a wide variety of reasons, especially wanting to help others. But it’s also OK to want some benefits for yourself from volunteering.

Susan J. Ellis, President of Energize, Inc explains that some people are uncomfortable with the notion that a volunteer “benefits” from doing volunteer work. There is a long tradition of seeing volunteering as a form of charity, based on altruism and selflessness. The best volunteering does involve the desire to serve others, but this does not exclude other motivations, as well.

Instead of considering volunteering as something you do for people who are not as fortunate as yourself, begin to think of it as an exchange.

Consider that most people find themselves in need at some point in their lives. So today you may be the person with the ability to help, but tomorrow you may be the recipient of someone else’s volunteer effort. Even now you might be on both sides of the service cycle: maybe you are a tutor for someone who can’t read, while last month the volunteer ambulance corps rushed you to the emergency room. Volunteering also includes “self-help.” So if you are active in your neighborhood crime watch, your home is protected while you protect your neighbors’ homes, too. Adding your effort to the work of others makes everyone’s lives better.

Figure 1.


Through my world travels for work and pleasure, I have been exposed to the amazing beauty (and challenges) in the world. I’m so inspired by what is going out outside of my native USA. While I have not directly experienced too much poverty and sadness — my increasing circle of concern in the world gives me much more to think about and care about. Education is of particular interest to me.

Author Jeffrey D. Sachs, called by Time Magazine as “the world’s best-known economist” has advised an extraordinary range of world leaders and international institutions. In his book The End of Poverty, his focus  is on the one billion poorest individuals around the world who are caught in a poverty trap related directly to their lack of access to capital, technology, medicine, and of course education.  His fundamental argument is that “[W]hen the preconditions of basic infrastructure (roads, power, and ports) and human capital (health and education) are in place, markets are powerful engines of development.”

As the UN’s Poverty And Education study shows the advantages that education provides both improve the living standards of communities and contribute to the social and economic development of countries. The education of girls has a further strong and very important effect on the role of women in society. Some of my personal hopes for global change are equal access to education and equal treatment of woman.

Malala Yousafzai (Born 1997) is a Pakistani school pupil and education activist from the town of Mingora in the Swat District of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She is known for her activism for rights to education and for women, especially in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban had at times banned girls from attending school. On 9 October 2012, Malala was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen while returning home on a school bus. In the days immediately following the attack, she remained unconscious and in critical condition, but later her condition improved enough for her to be sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England for intensive rehabilitation. Through her long recover and after, Malala inspires (see video below) children, adults, and governments alike with her message of equality in access to education for girls and boys around the globe.

Teaching English In Indonesia

While finishing a fruitful consulting project I saw an opportunity to block out time to volunteer. The needs for the Live Streaming Media Web Application project were clear and the end-date well-defined. I wound down some other projects too. In addition to searching for my next consulting project I looked for volunteering opportunities with an ideal fit. I knew I wanted to teach, work with young adults, and stay in Asia where I was living. There is abundant need for talented teachers; especially those with computer skills. I interviewed with several engagements and ultimately chose to teach English during 8 weeks in Indonesia.

Figure 2. Me, Playing games in the classroom

My students were age 13 to 18 with advanced (level 4 of 4) English skills. We met 5 days per week. There was no provided curriculum — a quality I was seeking in the position. I reviewed what they had been learning ahead of me to plan. Then I added in ‘teaching prep’ as a project within my weekly schedule until the day I began. The first day or 2 we broke the ice. The kids are shy, but enthusiastic. Their interest to learn English is genuine. One of the challenges was that students attend irregularly — on a given day the class filled with only about 8 of the 25 students. I learned during my first week that lessons must be modular, so students can participate fully even if they were not present the day before. Our lessons included travel, art, art history, agriculture and more.

Some other lessons;

  • Friend Interviews: Students divide into groups of two. Each student interviews the partner and presents to the class. (Download)
  • Super Heroes: Students learn about famous superheroes, talk about the extensive vocabulary related to powers and abilities. (Download)
  • Game Show: We learn about the basics of game mechanics (a preview to our talk about video games). The students play (once per week) game-show styles games like ‘Family Feud’. That game is a great example of learning vocabulary, team work, and culture (the question-set is very ‘American’).
  • Geography: We discuss Indonesia’s place in the world, Asia, and major continents. Each student chooses a country and completes internet research (and maybe interviews foreign teachers). (Download)
  • Music & Lyrics: Each week we discuss one pop song. Students listen and write any words they hear. Then with the lyrics in hand we listen again 2 times to review new vocabulary. Finally students debate on the meaning of the song. (Downloads)
  • Jokes: The students each told a joke (they are very shy) and I read some from a list. We discussed humor in books, TV, and films. (Download)

I included downloads to some of the curriculum I created. It is all very basic, but perhaps it would be useful to generate more ideas.

Q. Why is 6 afraid of 7?  A. Because 7 8 9! (seven ate nine!) — Probably my only joke that got students laughing.


I love games. Playing and making videogames! All students have access to internet and computers at the school as well as basic computer literacy. Because of my background and profession the school facilitators requested some computer-specific lessons. While I have taught game development at weekend courses, universities, and corporate training gigs, I hadn’t taught a group so young. I decided to build a few lessons around theory and then make a practical lesson focused on visual arts. My students love to art and are very proud of their creativity. Creativity is an outlet that the (otherwise quite timid) Balinese society really evangelizes.

Some computer-themed lessons;

  • Computer basics: The Bahasa Indonesia language borrows heavily from English for all technology terms. Students are familiar with most of the key terms. We reviewed web browsing, web searches. Most days we dedicated some time to searching Google and Wikipedia for some light research too.
  • Videogames 1: I created a concise outline based on my Adobe feature article “Intro To Gaming With Flash“.
  • Videogames 2: In groups students created new game art on paper. We scanned the work and added into an existing game engine which I used previously for more advanced programming classes. See video below for a completed game example. Very cool!

Balinese Culture

The teaching opportunity in Bali, Indonesia opened me up to the complexity of the Balinese people. The culture of Bali is unique. People say that the Balinese people have reached self-content. It is not an exaggeration that when a Balinese is asked what heaven is like, he would say, just like Bali, without the worries of mundane life. They want to live in Bali, to be cremated in Bali when they die, and to reincarnate in Bali.

It does not mean that the Balinese resist changes. Instead, they adapt them to their own system. This goes back far in history. Prior to the arrival of Hinduism in Bali and in other parts of Indonesia, people practiced animism. When Hinduism arrives, the practice of Hinduism is adapted to local practices. The brand of Hinduism practiced in Bali is much different from that in India. Other aspects of life flow this way. However, more modern cultural changes are more controversial. Changing too fast, locals fear that something special may be lost.

Traditional paintings, faithfully depicting religious and mythological symbolism, met with Western and modern paintings, giving birth to contemporary paintings, free in its creative topics yet strongly and distinctively Balinese. Its dance, its music, and its wayang theaters , while have been continually enriched by contemporary and external artistry, are still laden with religious connotations, performed mostly to appease and to please the gods and the goddesses.

Figure 3. Children painted for a local ceremony


The lessons learned in and out of the classroom will be with me for a long time. Overall the experience was amazing and I already have plans on how to contribute next.

Teaching abroad offers many benefits to the teacher as well of course. A few that come to mind are.

  • You can be a student in your own classroom.
  • It’s a crash course in cultural sensitivity.
  • You’ll get an instant network of local acquaintances.
  • You’ll be tapping into an excellent grapevine. The other teachers and facilitators you meet are amazing people with amazing stories and aspirations.
  • Travel is simple with a great home base.
  • It’s a career builder, even if you don’t want to teach long-term.


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