Ben Darby is an English teacher at International House London. From September 2010 to May 2014, he taught English at one of the charities the IH Trust supports, the Hackney Migrant Centre.
Here he shares his experience of teaching at the charity.
The Hackney Migrant Centre has been running a weekly ‘drop-in’ advice and support service for refugees and other migrants since 2008.
Staffed mostly by volunteers, it offers excellent support services. Advisors are provided through partnership arrangements with a variety of solicitors and refugee advice organisations and give help with immigration, welfare and housing issues.
A free lunch is cooked with food donated by local businesses and many users of the centre go on to become volunteer workers, translating for visitors and in some cases gaining catering qualifications through working in the kitchen.
One of the centre’s particular strengths is the welcoming and sociable environment it offers to often isolated and marginalised visitors.
In 2010 IH London offered their support and started providing a teacher for the centre, enabling the centre to run a two-hour drop-in English class on Wednesday afternoons.
I started working as the ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) teacher for this class in September 2010.
The lessons were originally held in a room above the vestry, with the church windows as a backdrop. The facilities were fairly basic: a portable whiteboard and a CD player.
As the class was run as a drop-in some students came and went while others attended regularly for over three years.
Teaching multiple language levels
There was a variety of levels of ability in the class, with students initially ranging from beginner to intermediate.
At first the majority of the students were African men, mostly from Eritrea, but over the years more women and a wider range of nationalities attended, such as Congolese, Somali, Iranian, Chinese, Turkish, Pakistani and Afghan.
As I come from a background of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at private language schools the classes at the Hackney Migrant Centre were something new and different.
There was a far greater range of differentiation than I was accustomed to, but fortunately the students were extremely supportive of each other and the stronger students would often pair up with beginners to help them.
Literacy was an issue for some of the students, especially those who struggled with reading and writing in their native language, so we focused on practical, day-to-day language: asking for information about buses and trains, topping up an Oyster card and understanding directions.
We also focused on politeness, which takes different forms in English than it does in other cultures. We used lots of role play but also practised tasks such as filling in application forms and composing basic emails.
Working with ESOL materials
I soon discovered that there are far fewer resources available for teaching English to migrants than there are for teaching EFL students.
TEFL is geared towards people who are visiting Britain to study English and course books can overemphasise western, middle class lifestyles and deal with topics which are irrelevant or inappropriate for ESOL students.
I once used a lesson on travel and transport from an EFL course book. The students were going to answer questions about a journey they had made and I modelled the activity by getting the students to ask me the questions.
I told an ‘amusing’ tale of a flight to India which had taken three days due to overbooking. I felt embarrassed when the understandably unimpressed students talked about journeys they had made.
One guy talked about escaping from a Sudanese prison as a prisoner of conscience by lying between the axles of a lorry, sailing to Greece in a barely seaworthy boat run by people smugglers, being imprisoned in a detention centre in Greece for nine months, crossing from France to England by hiding in the back of a lorry and then being detained upon arrival in the UK.
I’m delighted to say that he’s recently been granted leave to remain in the UK. But that lesson did underline the need for a different approach to the topics I taught.
Repurposing and adapting existing materials
One ESOL resource which was readily available was Skills for Life, a course for migrants designed by the government.
It focuses on every day, practical situations and uses far less text on each page than EFL course books so it isn’t overwhelming for students with low levels of literacy.
Although it was useful, Skills for Life could be a bit dry and had almost no focus on grammar. So sometimes I’d devise my own materials.
Getting a UK driver’s license was a priority for some of the students but they were struggling with the theory test so we practised the vocabulary of driving.
I also adapted grammar oriented EFL course books such as English File by stripping down the amount of text on each page, giving instructions verbally to avoid cluttered, text heavy hand-outs.
Classes based on what students need
The students were enthusiastic and wanted more lessons, so in February 2011 an additional class opened on Friday afternoons. This class focused on literacy and involved more script work.
The students were keen to take exams which awarded certificates recognised by the Home Office so we dedicated the Friday class to preparation for the OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA) speaking exam, which everyone passed.
In 2013 we moved to the ESB (English Speaking Board) exams and made the Friday class a closed group.
The students took the exam at IH London and passed at levels ranging from Entry Level 1 to Level 1 (beginner to upper intermediate). We ran the exams again in 2014 and saw longer- term students upping their levels and five candidates passing at level 1.
In 2014 we moved to a classroom with an electronic whiteboard and computer access (and heating!) in Dalston thanks to the Peter Bedford Housing Association who kindly offered use of the classroom for free.
Dedicated and inspiring students
Some of the students on the exam course had no recourse to public funds, which meant they couldn’t work, claim benefits or attend English courses at F.E. colleges while their claims for asylum were being processed.
Hackney Migrant Centre raised money to provide travel expenses for these students and this made it possible for them to afford the bus fare to attend.
For these students, destitution and very slow moving bureaucracy provide huge challenges, yet they have made progress with their English and remain remarkably positive.
Teaching at Hackney Migrant Centre often had a more pastoral role than my work at International House London. I helped explain letters from hospitals, jobcentres and solicitors and arranged voluntary placements for two students at Tate Modern.
I enjoyed working at Hackney Migrant Centre, not only with the class but also with the friendly staff. I’d like to thank Helen Hibberd for being such a supportive manager.
The class finished with a fun and rather moving leaving party in the community gardens in Dalston.
I’ll miss the students and Hackney Migrant Centre!