English classes are a lifeline - not only to learn the language but to combat social isolation

Pam Poole is a retired BBC World Service Sports Editor who decided to utilise a CELTA qualification and volunteer for TimeBank’s Talking Together English teaching project in London.

Life can play funny games with us sometimes. I’ve just completed teaching on a second pre-entry ESOL course. It’s been taking place at a refugee and migrant centre in Ilford, on the East London/Essex borders.  

The centre is based in part of a former church-run school building.  It was one of the area’s local infant-primary schools when I grew up in Ilford many years ago. As a ten year old, I might even have played rounders or netball against one of the school’s teams.  But the Romanian-run café across the road is new to me and on the other side of the railway line, the Asian restaurant and function venue occupying a former public house is also a change I am trying to get my head around.  I know the area’s geography, but that is it. As I say, life can play funny games with us sometimes.

Thursdays at the centre are particularly hectic, with queues for the foodbank, and parents rummaging through plastic boxes of clothes and toys. There’s a seemingly never-ending line of people needing legal advice, help with form-filling and finding their way through the difficulties of settling into a new country - and that of course includes help with English language and conversation, which is where TimeBank and its volunteers come in.

Suneel, my teaching assistant (pictured with Pam above), and I have now managed to get around twelve students through the courses. It doesn’t sound like much, but it has been no mean feat given that a commitment to English classes has been made in the run-up to the summer holidays. The majority are juggling childcare and the issues around making ends meet. Some have been working nights and observing the Ramadan fast during the day.  Others have been looking for work, accommodation and even missing relatives; and all have had to deal with the demands emanating from the capital’s public transport strikes, and the fickle British weather.

Like the change which has gone on in my home town, the most obvious point to make after teaching two groups is that no one course, no one module, and no one day is ever the same.  Fairly early on, I tore up the rule book in trying to mix up speakers of the same language in class. Husbands and wives didn’t want to be separated, particularly if there were children in tow. Stronger students would more readily help the weaker ones, by using their mother tongues if they had to—and frankly anything which helped in getting them to understand and grasp vital English basics was worth it.  

One of the most challenging aspects has been managing those who have had no formal education, so haven’t been used to being taught.  We’ve got them to stand up, move around, play games, and made the classroom time fun and accessible.  I will never forget how one woman’s eyes lit up when she had pictures to draw and an advert to design. Suddenly English for her was real, and she had the confidence to talk and do something useful and highly practical in a non-threatening environment.  When I explained to another student that this was a class in which she could feel safe, there was the audible relieved ripple of a sigh around the room.  

Another challenge was the mixed ability group, particularly those who were already more advanced. I shouldn’t have worried.  The majority kept coming back because they enjoyed mixing and meeting other people, while developing their understanding and conversational ability at the same time.  One student told me that all the confusion in her head had been straightened out.  The classes are clearly a lifeline for both the development of functional English and for getting the socially isolated out of their homes for a handful of hours each week.

And that brings me back almost to the point where I started - to me, the volunteer. Why do it?  Well, I am also out of the house for a couple of hours each week. I’m doing something useful and sociable for both me and others. I feel valued by the students, by the delivery centre and by the ever-professional TimeBank. The experience has been joyful. It is heart-warming to see people gaining confidence and coming out of themselves.  Now they are flicking through leaflets and catalogues, picking up that most terrifying of implements when speaking a foreign language—the telephone - and enrolling for ESOL courses. They are using English more confidently, whether it’s in writing, speaking, listening or reading.  They are better prepared to engage and be engaged. 

I am so proud of them all for sticking at it and earning their certificates. And this is the teacher’s relief - they are still hungry for more and so am I!  I know it’s been extremely challenging, even frustrating at times, but those moments are far outweighed by the benefits for all concerned.  Let life play its funny little tricks and games! It’s not every day we are fortunate enough to experience a win-win situation, and it’s a moment I want to bottle and savour for quite some time.