What makes a person step outside their comfort zone and do something which surprises even them? Had you bumped into me on Saturday May 5, you would have been able to ask me this very question. On that beautiful spring morning, I found myself standing, quaking with fear, in the reception of the BBC building on Portland Place.
I have often passed this famous landmark. However, I never thought for one moment that I would ever go through its doors, let alone be invited on ‘The Robert Elms Show’ on BBC Radio London to talk about my volunteering experience.
As I stood there waiting to be collected, one thought kept running through my mind – “why on earth did I agree to this?!” Although of course the wording was a great deal stronger! The truth is that I have never been good at public speaking and have had a lifetime battle with shyness, so agreeing to do the interview was a big deal. As it happened, there was no need to be anxious because Robert Elms was the perfect interviewer – professional, friendly, interesting and funny. He very quickly put me at ease and the interview proceeded smoothly and was tremendous fun. I walked out of the studio, went for coffee and had a good laugh about how nervous I had been.
In my volunteering for TimeBank’s project, Talking Together, I regularly come across people making this same giant leap out of their own comfort zone. Let me give you some background in case you haven’t heard about Talking Together. Talking Together is a really exciting initiative that trains volunteers to teach English to women who are marginalised because they don't speak the language. Many are unable to do everyday things we take very much for granted: describe their symptoms to a doctor, use public transport, or speak to their children’s school teachers.
The project is based on a simple concept: if you train a volunteer to teach informal, basic, spoken English, you can then place that volunteer with a class of non-English speakers. Each volunteer has the potential to offer teaching support to many women and to make a big difference to their lives by helping them to integrate more fully into the community. I am one of Talking Together’s team of committed English language teachers and I love working on this project because it is so much fun. I am given tremendous support by the TimeBank Project Co-ordinator, Calley, and by other volunteers who come to assist with the larger classes. Therefore, I would like to mention Kelly, Hannah, Ade and Caroline, who have all been central to making the classes a great success.
As Talking Together is all about empowering women, I want to tell you a bit about the women themselves. In my two years of volunteering, I have had the chance to meet and teach so many friendly and interesting women from all over the world. Classes have the most wonderfully diverse mix of cultures, personalities and ages (18 to 86 plus several babies!), which makes teaching so interesting and exciting.
However, there is one thing that nearly all the women have in common: an acute shyness about speaking English, often due to a fear of making mistakes and looking foolish. I have watched so many women walk in to their first lesson and they nearly always have the same fixed, tense expression on their faces. Therefore, my aim from the very beginning is to make every woman feel valued and supported. I hope that by creating a safe space, they will feel confident enough to practice their English with me, and will then, as they progress, feel confident enough to go out and speak at the shops, at the Health or Job Centre – or even make that all-important call to the emergency services.
I really admire them for making the decision to start learning English and for being courageous enough to walk through the classroom door. I have been so impressed by how committed the women are to learning to speak English, how seriously they take the lessons and how pleased they are to be part of the class. Their hard work and enthusiasm makes teaching them such a pleasure. A perfect example of this enthusiasm is that the women at one of my centres asked for an extra weekly lesson, just to focus on reading and writing.
So, to go full circle, when I was asked to talk on the radio, I weighed up the possibility of potential embarrassment versus the opportunity to discuss something that I feel incredibly passionate about. I knew almost immediately that I would accept because I don’t think I could have faced the women in my class again if I had not followed my own advice: ‘go on, be brave, don’t worry if you don’t get it right, don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, just have a go’. I care about all the women in my class. I am so pleased that they happened to walk through my door and am so proud of them for taking that first step. There have been so many special moments in the past two years, but my favourite is always witnessing each class make the magical transformation from strangers to classmates. I am convinced that all the women have so much to gain by integrating into the community, but more importantly they also have so much to offer.
My initial decision to volunteer with Talking Together was a great first step for me. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the privilege of being involved in other people’s lives and winning their trust. I can honestly say that I have gained more than I have given, so if anyone reading this is thinking about volunteering, I would really encourage you to go ahead and do it. Who knows, it may take you outside of your comfort zone too.
If you'd like to know more about Talking Together, take a look here.