A Day in the Life of a Volunteer Teacher

Patricia Barr

Childrens Section Artwork

The wind is cold as it channels in a vortex between the high rise glass buildings, and buffets me as I walk swiftly along the damp streets. It feels good to be in the protective confines of the Refugee Council as I enter the silent and empty classroom. It is Monday morning. The silence seems an echo of the multitudinous voices that had filled the room the week before, as if their presence had imprinted itself onto this space, and I feel these invisible selves as I set up tables and chairs, and place paper, pencils, colourful books and dictionaries out in readiness for the reality of their presence. I make tea and sit waiting. You never really know who is going to come to class, some may have at last got a place in a school, others may have appointments with solicitors or social workers, and of course new children come on a frequent basis. This English class organised by the Refugee Council Children’s Section is the first port of call for asylum seeking children aged between 13 years and 17 years before they enter the British state education system.

My first student arrives looking sleepy and with a shy smile says

‘Good Morning Teacher’

I like my name ‘Teacher,’ it feels touching.

I ask if he has had a good weekend, and then we have to check which days of the week make up the weekend. Other students come. I have about five in all. This is my intermediate class. I try and make it challenging and interesting. These are teenage students, full of inquiry, full of opinions and with an intense desire to know and understand. We discuss the idea of ‘political correctness’ which leads us to the place of women in society, this leads to a cross cultural discussion of the place of women in their respective countries, this is all accompanied by humour and laughter, the class is vibrant as students from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Vietnam Albania and Kuwait discuss these issues. The two hour class passes quickly and it is now lunchtime and I retire to the Library café for a welcome lunch to give me energy for the afternoon class.

The afternoon class is quite different. There are fourteen students of mixed ability, some can write in their native language, others are having their first experience of trying to write in any language, some have had some schooling and others have had none. These lessons can be rather chaotic, but today, I have downloaded pictures of King Henry VIII, and I give his story. Every student can associate with a picture, every student can also have some input and every student can make an attempt at writing the story that I have acted out and written on the board. The class takes on an energy of its own as the students lead the debate, there is a cacophony, but when the class comes to an end, the students are reluctant to leave. Something seems to happen when even the shy, anxious students get help from others.

I come away feeling somewhat exhausted but also elevated. I am humbled by these children that have such resilience, because however much my class seems a celebration of the future and hope, the shadow in the background is the generic story, a story of escape from brutality and war and then a journey filled with uncertainty and fear, and the journey does not come to an end when they have reached the ‘safety’ of British shores. There is the convoluted asylum system and the ever present fear of being returned to the terrifying thing that they have fled from.

It is still damp when I return home but the wind has died down. I sit in the warmth of the train and stare at people round me and think ‘I bet you have not spent a day doing anything as important as I have been doing’ In fact I have not been doing anything important, but I have learnt something important which has come directly from those extraordinary young people that I have been in contact with.

This is my day as a volunteer English teacher for the Refugee Council Children’s Section.