The rewards of volunteer mentoring

Over the last six months I have been volunteering with TimeBank’s Talking Together project as a language teacher and a mentor. Although both roles share the same goal of inspiring confidence and improving spoken English, after donning both hats as a mentor and teacher they have proved different in their challenges.

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When I began mentoring at the BWA in Small Heath, I had just finished my first teaching group. I would now be working in a team to plan sessions with my fellow mentors Amy and Reena, shifting my focus from delivering individual areas of language to the individuals themselves; their wants, needs and goals.

The first major hurdle I experienced as a rookie mentor was how to go about helping the women in the group identify major life goals and decisions using a language they were still developing. That’s where us mentors had a secret, powerful weapon … good, thoughtful lesson planning!

Something I have definitely learnt from teaching is to start small and build from there. A simple idea and activity such as a memory game gets the group talking, introduces a topic and leads to a larger discussion, from shopping to daily routines to future life plans and beyond. Then in our individual mentoring groups we can expand on the larger group activity and/or focus on a key area in detail depending on the women's choices.

If you’ll forgive the lazy metaphor, we as mentors are the initial push of the bike and it’s the mentees that do the pedalling, with the security of knowing we’ll be there to dust them off and put them back on the saddle if they fall. We are mentors not teachers, we are a guiding force but the mentees have to be active in their learning which is why the emphasis should always be on getting the group talking and keeping the amount of time our mentor mouths are flapping to a minimum. This can prove difficult for people who lack confidence and are used to a teacher/student situation. It took time to communicate to the class that they needed to put their pens down and to get more comfortable speaking conversational English with each other.

All of this was building up to the group trip in the fifth week of the course where the ladies had the opportunity to practice that everyday English with other people. Unlike teaching which has a more structured, module based course, the mentoring group select their own areas to focus on and the trip gave them the chance to use what they had developed outside the classroom.

The trip to The Pen Museum in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter involved bus travel, navigating across the city centre and lunch in a restaurant. All everyday activities that require a little confidence and spoken English. This is what we had been building up to, and the women in our group really showed how empowered they are with real self-assurance and enthusiasm. I can honestly say I had a real, satisfied, warm feeling afterwards - and it wasn’t from the buffet lunch.

It seems a pointless question to ask whether my time as a teacher and mentor has been a worthwhile experience. All you need to do is look at the photo as the students receive their certificates at the end of the course. Each beaming smile says it all - and that includes my own.

See how you can get involved in our Talking Together project.