Volunteering as an English teacher

My Experience teaching English as a Volunteer

by Beccy Smith

Like millions of other people around the world, seeing the global refugee crisis unfold had left me feeling so shocked and saddened that I wanted to help in some way. I felt frustrated at the lack of support being offered by those in power, and the fact that I was unable to provide a large cash donation to a charity, I considered other ways I could help. Volunteering as an English teacher seemed the best way forward.

I returned to the UK from Spain this March, having gained my TEFL qualification and some teaching experience whilst living in Valencia. Whilst living there, I worked in a local private school that also ran evening and weekend English classes for adults. Working as a teaching assistant there was a great experience, and I also planned and taught a few lessons myself whilst the school undertook exams, which was nerve-wracking, but fantastically rewarding.


My First teaching experience

My first teaching experience happened a few years back, however. I volunteered teaching English and after-school arts and sports club in a rural school in Nicaragua on behalf of an NGO helping poor sugarcane communities, whose workers had been struck by a chronic kidney disease epidemic. This was a chaotic, but totally amazing, rewarding and enlightening experience that left me with a passion to teach English. It didn’t happen straight away, but last year I was made redundant from my 9-5 office job which put me back on the teaching career path, for which I am very grateful indeed!

My first go at volunteering as an English teacher- a fantastic experience!


Working with refugees

The first thing I did on my return to the UK was contact my local refugee centre, which it turned out had a big demand for volunteer English foreign-language teachers. I was relieved and proud to see that the area I grew up in was making such a huge effort to help these vulnerable people in our local community. I could only imagine that it could be such an unnerving and lonely experience being placed in such a different culture and environment, having already experienced such a large amount of trauma. If there was anything I could do to make people feel welcome and at ease in some way, then I wanted to help.

There were numerous programmes that I could choose to get involved with; from helping with a Syrian resettlement program, where I could help teach English to recently-arrived Syrian families, or teaching ESOL to a variety of different groups. Finally, I opted for a teaching assistant role in a women’s group and an ESOL Entry 2 class that were on the same day. I also enrolled to teach IELTS on a one-to-one basis for one afternoon a week.


Varied Tasks

Since then I have never looked back. In week 1 I was plonked straight in with the women’s group; initially helping set up the teas and coffees served at break time, and playing ‘Snakes and Ladders’ with some beginner students to get them feeling comfortable on their first day (which also helped me to do the same!). The leader of this group has often commented on how pleased she was that I got ‘stuck in straight away’, but being surrounded by such a vibrant, friendly and diverse bunch of people made it so easy. I felt moved seeing so many smiling and happy faces and I’ll never forget how rewarding that felt. I am now regularly planning and leading lessons in the group, and my emphasis is on making the lessons as fun, engaging and interactive as possible so that the women can go away with lots of newly learnt language, and the confidence to use it at the end of each week. A few students have approached me after lessons to tell me how much they enjoyed the classes, which for me, is priceless. I am gaining so much valuable teaching experience in this role, but the reward is far greater than anything I could have expected.

The ESOL classes have also been a huge benefit in terms of seeing how students are prepared for the exams, the structure and content of the syllabus, and how students with different levels of ability can help each other in a group setting. The teacher is amazing; very knowledgeable and always more than happy to impart her wisdom, knowledge and experience whenever I have any burning questions at the end of the lesson (which is quite often). There is a huge amount of vocab to be taught in each lesson, but the examples and explanations she uses make it stick, which, you can see from the looks of concentration on the students’ faces, and their ability to reproduce the language. As an assistant I carry out tasks such as correcting written work, assist with speaking exercises, etc, and in the short time I’ve been there, I have definitely noticed improvement in confidence and ability throughout the whole class (not just in these disciplines, but with reading and listening as well). The students are currently taking exams and tomorrow will be the last lesson before we break up for Summer. I think there might be some tears.


Helping Individuals

My one-to-one tutoring will continue throughout the summer, however. The student I am working with to help him pass the academic IELTS exam is starting to get stuck in, and we have started looking at techniques for learning new vocabulary which we are incorporating into the practice papers that are provided. We will use these as markers to track progress throughout the year.  We have a great rapport and lessons are always enjoyable, even if we have a long way to go, particularly in learning how to paraphrase- which is a key requirement for the academic IELTS. My student is at an intermediate level (about a 5.5 on the IELTS band scale), and ideally we need to get that up to a 6.5 at the least. So far, we have enjoyed the lessons and discovering what we need to do on our mission to fly through the IELTS, but we are aware of the challenges that brings too!

My next mission is to help teach ESOL beginners classes over the summer to a group of unaccompanied teenagers. Having recently arrived in the UK, they have very little English, so I am really looking forward to teaching them, as I know it will be challenging, but again, very rewarding. I feel so lucky to be gaining such valuable and diverse teaching experience whilst [hopefully] making a difference to peoples’ lives. I feel that meeting people from all walks of life enriches us and helps us grow individually, and as a society, and I can definitely say that encountering the people I have, my hometown has changed for the better as a result. I look forward to where this path takes me next, but for now, I’ll continue doing my bit to help refugees which I hope helps to make them smile as much as it does me.


Working with Connect to English

In addition to working with refugees, I am also embarking on teaching some group classes with Connect to English. Diane and we are currently working together to come up with some fun and exciting lesson ideas for teaching English to beginners who want to expand their limited language skills, and also for Au Pairs, of which there are many in the Colchester area. We understand how daunting it can be when arriving in a foreign country with limited language skills and we look forward to teaching these lessons which we hope will give our students confidence to settle in here in the UK! We look forward to meeting you soon.