When I moved back to the UK from Russia, I had finished teaching. For good. I was fed up of spending hours preparing for classes, teaching the same topics over and over again, and working erratic hours that drove me to pre-dawn breakfasts and dinner after 10pm.
It took approximately six weeks of classroom-free life for me to realize that I missed it.
In August 2012 I started teaching at FELLOW, an Oxford-based organization that offers free English lessons to migrant workers. I started out as a classroom assistant (I’ll admit that although I missed teaching, it took me a while to miss planning lessons), then became a teacher, and spent a little under two years coordinating the volunteers and recruiting new teachers. I stepped back* from the organizational side of things in December 2014, and now focus solely on the learners who attend classes. And attend classes, they do!
FELLOW is both the most supportive and demanding teaching environment I’ve ever worked in. Classes are run on weekday evenings (Tuesdays-Thursdays) and are drop-in. Students don’t sign up beforehand, and no one is turned away. A typical evening might attract an absolute beginner from Brazil, a false beginner from Poland, a near-fluent English speaker from Iraq who is unable to read or write, and a visiting academic from Japan who has just scored 9 on her IELTS test but wants to continue studying English and meet some new friends.
The best part about FELLOW – particularly in comparison to a lot of my experiences at private language schools – is that everyone wants to be there. The learners are enthusiastic, motivated and fun to teach. They attend in droves.
The greatest challenge at FELLOW is making classes work. Although learners are split into two groups (‘higher’ and ‘lower’), their knowledge of English varies wildly. Two classes take place simultaneously in one small room, so teachers must always be mindful not to distract each other during lesson time. This means no loud listening exercises – and lots of whispered speaking practice. There are few books (due to limited storage), and we don’t have a photocopier.
One of my main interests is teaching English in low-resource contexts – and this is why!
*Pro tip: volunteers never ‘step down’, they always ‘step back’. ‘Step down’ implies leaving permanently, whereas those who ‘step back’ are always available to ‘step forward’ again.