Taking Learning Onboard: One Teacher’s Life-Defining Decision

Taking Learning Onboard: One Teacher’s Life-Defining Decision

Aged 34, teacher Kathryn Dungworth made a daring decision to leave the job and country she loved and step into the complete unknown.

She had been a primary school teacher in Lancashire for the past 12 years and felt inspired for a change after learning about a charity she had never heard of before.

Walking around Christian festival Spring Harvest in Harrogate in the Easter of 2018 she was immediately moved on hearing how Mercy Ships was addressing the surgery crisis in Africa, by sending hospital ships staffed with volunteers to places they are needed most.

“I didn’t think I could apply as I was not medical but then I discovered that they have a school onboard and needed teachers,” Kathryn said.

The children of volunteers are taught at the accredited school, the Mercy Ships Academy, while their parents are also volunteering in everything from medical to marine and catering to carpentry.

Kathryn signed up for two years on hospital ship the Africa Mercy and was soon on her way to Senegal and then Liberia as the Grade 1 elementary teacher onboard, equivalent to Year 2 in the UK, quickly becoming the elementary lead teacher too. For Kathryn, her faith gave her the confidence to pursue the big challenge.


She said, “’I was both excited and nervous when I left the UK. I was heading out to a new home and job that I have never physically seen and added to that I did not know anyone on the ship. However, I had the assurance that God had called me to go, and he had prepared the way!”

Many teachers crave smaller class sizes and for Kathryn, who previously could have up to 32 in her class, now had around six students at a time. It was a special opportunity to really get to know each individual little character and give every student quality attention.

Kathryn said, “Mercy Ships Academy is a wonderful place to be a teacher. It provides a unique experience, not just for the children but also for us! Last year I had six students from five different countries. It was fabulous to learn about different cultures and some new languages. It’s a real privilege.”

Unlike the curriculum back in the UK, school on the Africa Mercy comes with life experience. Students are exposed to multiple cultures in different parts of the world, complete with educational field trips every time they head down the gangway into a new and exciting country.

“I feel that this time has really impacted the way that I teach, developing new ideas from people I would never have met and from countries I may never have visited.”

Being on a ship with her students means that when she clocks off for the day she will, in all likelihood, see them before class the next morning.

She said, “You feel very special when your name is called across the dining room as though you are a celebrity!

“It is also great to teach alongside teachers from all over the world, you can really learn a lot and develop professionally seeing how others teach and the philosophy of education that other people have.”

She loves the experience so much she has extended her two years and signed up for a third year, meaning she will be serving until June 2022.

Kathryn said, “I chose to extend for a third year as I loved serving in the Mercy Ships Academy. It is such a unique opportunity to teach children from all over the world, share God’s love with them and use the gifts I have been given to help others to bring hope and healing to the patients onboard.”


During the pandemic, Kathryn saw colleagues around the world have to pack up their classrooms and change to online learning. But for her small teaching bubble, it was possible to continue in person. She says she felt this was both a blessing and a privilege.

Although Kathryn has made the Africa Mercy her home, community, church, and workplace over the past two and a half years, she is about to leave for a new challenge. She is moving to board the Global Mercy – the newest hospital ship in the Mercy Ships fleet.

“I feel both excited to be joining the new ship and a little sad to be leaving the Africa Mercy behind as it has been my home – I have met friends onboard that become like family. However, it is so amazing to think that having the Global Mercy as well will allow for ships to be in two different countries bringing double the number of surgeries for people in West Africa,” she said.

The Global Mercy is the world’s largest civilian hospital ship and will have six operating theatres, wards for 200 patients, clinics, and accommodation for 641 crew, comprised of volunteers from throughout the globe. The school onboard is set to start in mid-January and Kathryn will be helping get everything set up ready for the imminent arrival of the students and teachers.

And although it may have been a frightening step into the unknown – she is so happy she was daring enough to take the leap and volunteer.

Kathryn added: “It’s the best decision I ever made, maybe one of the scariest at first but ultimately it has been life changing, fulfilling and a real blessing. I would say if you are considering serving – do it!”

Professionals in everything from teacher to technicians, electricians to engineers are needed. Like Kathryn, you could be part of a global team that transforms lives. Visit https://www.mercyships.org/makeyourmark/