I’ve just come to the end of 3 weeks in Greece (2 in Athens and 1 in Thessaloniki), volunteering as a teacher trainer for some of the volunteers there who are teaching English to adult refugees. It’s been both a challenging and very rewarding experience. Here’s some more information, and a few personal reflections…
Who were the teachers?
The thirty or so volunteer teachers I worked with across Athens and Thessaloniki came from a range of age, gender, nationality and first-language backgrounds. They were teaching in different contexts – some based in camps, others working in community centres which had an education department, others teaching in less formal environments, such as in homes, cafés or squats. Three of the teachers were themselves refugees, who had joined the team of volunteers within their communities. They were all incredibly committed and motivated to helping their students develop their English language skills.
The teachers I worked with are based at various locations around Athens, including Project Elea in Eleonas Camp and Khora Community Centre in the city centre, and Thessaloniki, including Lifting Hands International in Serres, and IHA and We Are Here in Nea Kavala camp. These volunteer teachers are bright, enthusiastic and extremely dedicated. Though most of them do not have any background in English language teaching, they all have the right attitude and motivation to develop their skills and make a real difference to their students.
Who were the students?
The students came from backgrounds as diverse as the teachers! Unlike most of the students I’ve taught, these students were refugees, temporarily living in Greece while on their journey to rebuilding their lives, after past events had forced them to leave their countries of origin.
Despite these circumstantial differences from previous students I’d worked with in more stable and privileged environments, all the classes I visited were very much like any other in terms of the students’ mix of motivation levels, proficiency levels, personalities and learning preferences.
What did we do?
To help the volunteers fill the gaps in their pedagogical skillset and meet the communicative needs of their students, it was important to offer both some general training, and visit individual classrooms to see what was happening there.
For the former, we met as a group over three full days, with two days aimed at less experienced teachers plus one day for those with more experience. For the latter, teachers invited me to attend their lessons to observe the teaching and learning. Afterwards, we would meet one-on-one and reflect on the lesson together, focusing on what the teacher was doing that had worked well and what they could do differently/additionally to make the students’ learning experience even more efficient and effective.
What were my impressions of this experience?
I loved it. I found the discussions we had in the teacher training sessions were rich, enjoyable and enlightening – I’m quite sure I learned as much from the teachers as they did from me. And of course, it’s always rewarding to teach and train, as you see the difference that even small insights can make to the daily practices of your students and trainees.
Of course, it wasn’t all easy and cheerful. It would be remiss not to mention some of the more upsetting and poignant moments from my time in Greece. Like the incredible sense of sheer boredom for many refugees, that mingles with the frustration and desperation of being stuck in a foreign place – your entire life on hold, with so much uncertainty about your future and even your present.
One student in a class that I observed was really curious about why I was there. I tried to smile but not engage him in conversation (as it was distracting for the teacher, who he was supposed to be paying attention to!). At the end, he waited until all the students had left and asked me, “Where are you from?” I answered, then asked where he was from. He said, “Iraq. And I’m human.” That took me aback. For one thing, why would I think anything else? And this guy barely speaks 50 words of English. Yet this is a phrase he’s learnt, and feels important to share when he meets a new volunteer.
There were two adorable little boys, brothers aged about 4 and 5, running around the volunteer office, flashing cheeky smiles, climbing on my colleague, dancing to music and trying to get more and more biscuits from me after I offered them one. One of the boys eventually toddled off, and my colleague explained that he was limping because he’s got a problem with his leg. He spent 3 months in hospital last year after arriving in Greece, because he’d nearly drowned on the boat coming over. The motor from the boat then fell on his leg and damaged it. They managed to save his life, but now he has a limp. And he still runs around and plays like any other little boy, blissfully unaware of how unusual his childhood is.
But, heart-wrenching stories aside, my overriding impression of the refugee and volunteer community here is one of incredible resilience, creativity, goodwill and humanity. I had a good laugh with one of my new friends, a volunteer teacher who is himself a refugee, when we said goodbye on my last day. I said I might be back one day and hoped to see him again. “I won’t be here!” he said optimistically, to which I replied, “true, I hope I don’t see you again!” We laughed; he then said he might come back and visit one day – to volunteer as a teacher again. What a great heart.
Another great highlight of my experience in Greece was seeing two lessons on two different days by one of the teachers who had attended my training sessions. He is a refugee, and is now volunteering as an English teacher. The first one wasn’t great – and deliberately so, because he wanted me to see what his teaching was like before he’d had any input at all. We talked about it afterwards: I gave him some feedback, he assessed his strengths and weaknesses, then I came back a couple of days later to see him teach again. He delivered such a good lesson – it was barely recognisable compared to the first one! I felt so proud! Being a teacher/trainer really has some golden moments.
Want to get involved?
First of all: whatever you do, please be sensitive. Remember that refugee camps are not tourist attractions. For my part, I don’t pretend that a couple of weeks of volunteering with teachers here has given me a thorough and deep understanding of what people are going through. I can only say that I’ve had a glimpse into the daily reality of some of those experiencing first-hand what is perhaps the biggest global humanitarian crisis of my generation. I’m glad to have met the people I worked with on this trip, I wish them all the best for their present and future lives, and I can only hope that my small contribution has made some positive difference.
If you want to learn more about volunteering with some of the organisations based in Athens, you might find it helpful to visit the Project Elea, Khora Community Centre or No Border School websites.
There’s also a volunteer recruitment organisation that works in partnership with Help Refugees, called IndiGo Volunteers, who work with 30+ organisations throughout Greece to supply volunteers. You can find more information here.
Finally, if you want to help but you’re not able to give much time and/or your physical presence, you might like to contribute something from Project Elea’s general Amazon Wishlist, or from their specific book/education wishlist.
This blog was written by Laura Patsko, and first published – in a longer form – on her blog. Do read her original piece if you would like additional information on the workshops that were provided, feedback from the teachers, and further reading about teaching in Greece.
To find out more about volunteering with Help Refugees in Greece, teaching or not, please click here. Thank you.