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The Basics of Voluntary ESOL

By Steph Neville, St Chad’s Sanctuary, Birmingham

Some of you may have seen the wonderful story of Steph Neville and her husband buying a house for asylum seekers in December last year. If not, you can find it here.

In this article, Steph reflects on her time working with refugees and asylum seekers.

I have been teaching English to refugees and asylum seekers, as a volunteer, for about 3½ years and it is something which I have grown to deeply love. I feel hugely privileged to have become ‘part of the story’ for some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. There is no doubt that this experience has changed who I am. My background is in primary school teaching, which I say by way of explaining that I am by no means an “expert” in ESOL provision; but it is something I am passionate about, a way of responding positively and offering a welcome to those who come to our country seeking sanctuary. I have no regrets about embarking on this journey of discovery and would invite others to do the same. These are, I guess, simply some of the top tips and guiding principles that have helped me along the way.


1 An Ethos of Welcome

For me this is the absolute heart of who we are: the central value that governs what we do and how we do it. Yes, voluntary ESOL provision is of course about education; but it is, first and foremost about providing places of welcome, places where people and their stories are valued and respected, safe spaces in a daunting world … I believe this to the very depths of my being and I will never apologise for repeating it endlessly. Holding to this: meeting everything and everyone with a spirit of welcome and hospitality and love and compassion covers for a multitude of inept lesson plans!

2. Know what are you trying to create

There are lots of different models of voluntary ESOL provision: social groups, drop-in classes, more formal classes which require a level of commitment; classes which are open to all and classes which are aimed specifically at those of a certain level; family classes, and adult only classes, and mixed and single gender classes … I am not saying any of these are better than any others: but if you are starting out, it’s sensible to know roughly what you are aiming for… it’s easier to stick to a vision if you know what that vision is.

3. Practicalities

It is probably common sense to say there are lots of practical considerations to take into account when you are getting started… and that some kind of planning does help. Think about the space and the layout of the room, which may depend on what “feel” you are trying to create. Be realistic about numbers. Think about the preparation of appropriate resources, especially if you have no idea who might come. Decide what, if any, training you want or need. Think about timings and how the session might run. Think about roles for different people: and never forget to decide who is going to make the tea!

4. Supporting each otherESOL Students

ESOL with refugees and asylum seekers is one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences … but it has its moments of being tough and almost everyone deals with ‘tough’ better when supported by others. Support might be very practical (sharing resources, not having the same person trying to do three things at once) but also emotional. Remember to affirm and thank each other … you are, I’m sure doing a great job! Encourage each other, and also be willing to offer and respond to suggestions and advice. Support each other within your own group but don’t be afraid to look to other organisations for help if you need it.

5. Flexibility

Having said “know what you want to create” I hope I am not entirely contradicting myself when I say flexibility is possibly one of the most important qualities of voluntary ESOL provision. The unpredictability is one of the great challenges, but there is also something very beautiful about being able to constantly adapt to need. You may not know who is turning up from one day to the next. Being able to adapt to different numbers of students, vastly varying levels of English and educational experience, suddenly teaching a language point that seems urgent in a particular moment or situation seems to be part and parcel of the package! Be aware too that the people you work with will not only have the trauma of the past to contend with, but are often still living lives that are incredibly chaotic: poor attendance and punctuality, for example, in my experience is rarely a sign of disrespect, nor evidence of a lack of motivation to learn, but simply a reality of life situations we can hardly even begin to imagine.

6. Knowing your limits

It’s great to be welcoming, (I think I might have mentioned that), and important to be flexible but it is also really important to know your limits. Don’t ever feel guilty about setting limits on what you can and can’t do. Whether the limits are imposed by physical space, resource availability, volunteer confidence or capacity, or by the decisions you have made about what you want to create, it is valid to have them in place and to stick to them. I would be the first to admit that saying no can be incredibly tough, but that doesn’t mean it is the wrong thing to do.

7. Achieving balance

In my experience, there are so many things to hold in balance when teaching voluntary ESOL … and there are no hard and fast rules for doing so, but a bit of awareness of some of the tightropes you are treading might help. Among the many: both having a clear vision and having certain limits can feel like they are in tension with being flexible; being welcoming and having certain expectations can feel like a challenging balance for some though not everyone experiences it as such; it may be that there is a balance to be drawn between the “ESOL” part of what you are doing and the “social” part … and so on…

8. Challenging topics or conversations

For me, I don’t think there are necessarily any topics that are “off limits”… but there are a number of topics which should be approached carefully and it is worth giving some thought to how to handle them before they come up: family, homes and journeys which are automatic conversation starters in many settings, would be obvious examples to be handled with care. Be aware of the limited financial means and lack of opportunities your students / guests have experienced before launching in totals of holidays abroad and shopping trips. Sharing around cultural and faith issues can be beautiful but should always be done sensitively. Some of the most difficult topics can also bring some of the most rewarding conversations, but try, where possible, to go into them with your eyes open. Obviously there will be a difference in approach with those who are dealing with drop-ins that welcome different people every time and those who build up sustained relationships over time.

9. Did I mention it’s really all about welcome!

10. And don’t forget to have fun!