Like most people who choose to volunteer with a charity, I wanted to do something to make things better for people when they are low in things we usually take for granted. I’d run a workshop for a group thinking about what ‘home’ meant to people, so we could better understand what refugees might want. When it was over, someone said: ‘But how can we start to say what we might want if we don’t even have language!’ That stuck with me.
I knew what it was like to have no words. Many decades ago I’d taken a job as a language teacher in Italy. I didn’t have any Italian, but it looked like it might be fun. I arrived at the city of Ancona by the sea, which I thought was my destination, but instead I was taken up into the mountains to teach in a small town where almost no one had a word of English. It was an experience, but not always a good one, and I spent a difficult year there. But I certainly learnt Italian fast – for survival as much as anything – and I found I enjoyed teaching English.
So a few years back, when refugees were in the news again, I started to think about ways to be useful in that regard. People I knew in Hexham had mentioned volunteering with Action Language and were clearly enjoying it, so I decided to find out more. I went for an interview which I have to say was as thorough and as professional as any job interview I’d done at any level. That was important to me – I saw at once that it was a well-run organisation. In fact, a really good aspect of volunteering with Action Foundation is that you are treated as if you matter which, sadly, is not always the case with charities and their volunteers. We are sent emails about courses and lectures, interesting articles and events; that really matters to me, even if I’m not often able to take advantage of them.
They want to learn and are appreciative of the help they’re getting
I’d had experience of teaching languages, but no qualifications for it, and I was happy to be a teaching assistant in classes which were for people with no English or very little indeed. I think that what my time in Italy had given me, more than the actual teaching, was the very difficult experience of having no language at all and so realising how language can still build fast from nothing. There were three assistants to one teacher in my class, and it was brim-full of at least a dozen enthusiastic students – almost all male – from around the world, but primarily the Middle East and North Africa.
What I loved most about those sessions was to see young men from countries that sometimes had been at war with one another – maybe still were – enjoying a joke together, struggling with exercises together, very enthusiastic to learn fast. Considering the difficult and often awful backgrounds many will have had prior to their arrival in this city, what often shines through is their humour and resilience. They want to learn and they’re appreciative of the help they’re getting.
Fenwick, my husband, saw that I was enjoying it and decided he’d like to teach there too. He’d taught English as a young man in Birmingham and he found he also loved the experience. There’s a lot of laughter in a class, whether they’re beginners or those who are just brushing up on their English.
In 2019 I started working on enrolments which gave me a whole different experience. There are so many steps to remember in terms of giving the tests to grade people into the right class and then to let them know when they should attend for their two lessons a week. When classes were full we would have to direct them to other ways to learn in Newcastle, but also to let them know they would get a call when a class became free. I really enjoyed these sessions because people were often very freshly arrived as refugees, and there was so much variety in their skill levels and backgrounds.
When Covid hit, everything shut down, though Action Language did all it could to keep in touch with students. When it opened again in the summer of 2020, all the classes were on Zoom, and that suited us as we were doing all we could to stay safe. In fact, we discovered that Zoom worked very well for teaching, though some students had a few internet problems.
What was particularly good, was that we had far more women in these classes than we’d done before, and this is still the case. Many are mums with young children, so working on-line was very much easier for them. I’d always been sorry that there weren’t more women when we were face-to-face, and I’m pleased that’s changed with this new way of doing things.
In the summer of 2021, many of the classes resumed in Newcastle, but we had moved to live even further away and were happy to stay on those classes which remained on Zoom. And that’s where we are now. It’s been good to learn that working in this way, online, can be very effective and that, once again, there are so many more women as students than we have in face-to-face classes.
I still love the humour of our students and the feeling that, wherever we come from in the world, we all share so much but also delight in listening to people telling each other their stories and their differences. It makes our lives so interesting. Action Language is clearly great for the students, but it’s also unusually good and supportive for volunteers too. I’m not alone in feeling valued in this experience – and that’s a bonus!