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Volunteer Teaching: My Experience Teaching English To Refugees




The Project

Two Americans, Two Brits, a Spaniard, an Australian, a Swede, a Polish, a Norwegian and an Italian. The small (but mighty) team that built the new free shop known as the Szafa Dobra or Wardrobe of good in Krakow, Poland. Over just a few weeks this small team of volunteers working for Drapen I havet/A drop in the Ocean and Internationale Bund Polska rallied to set up the free shop. From finding a location to stripping and painting walls to sourcing electricity and unpacking countless cardboard boxes, it was no easy task. Not only this, but the team were also volunteer teaching in the evenings – a busy few weeks!

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the shop was ready to open. Outside a long queue of Ukrainian families eagerly waited to browse the clothes and accessories. A steady line of 200 men, women and children entered the shop, taking almost 1000 items with them. From winter coats to pyjamas and toys, it was clear there was still very much a need. According to the Polish government over 7 million refugees have entered Poland since the beginning of the year and it is clear support is still needed for many. In the evening, English lessons were running for a lovely group of Ukrainian women… but more on volunteer teaching later.

It’s a match

Indigo Volunteers connects volunteers with humanitarian projects around the world. They partner with over 50 grassroots organisations and match you with institutions that have a need on the ground at the time. I applied, adding my skills and preferences, and was immediately connected with several organisations that needed help. Indigo support you every step of the way and sends further information and resources to assist with your initial research and to give you a further understanding of the situation on the ground. Check out the organisation below to find out more.

Drapen I Havet/A drop in the Ocean is a Norwegian NGO that supports displaced persons in several locations across Europe. They provide direct and immediate support, inside and outside refugee camps, and advocate to increase attention on people forced to flee their homes. The organisation distributes items and provides non-formal education and activities to support well-being and build community and belonging. They do important work in Lesvos, Northern Greece, Athens, Poland, Norway, Bosnia and Herzegovina and run several impactful projects in each location.

The entire experience as a fieldworker was extremely smooth from start to finish. A drop in the Ocean was not only welcoming but very thorough. The team gave continuous support; from a welcome call before arriving to clear handover notes and constant communication throughout. They offered advice on accommodation and shared information about living in Krakow, and would run weekly meetings and team meals with all volunteers which really made it feel like a small community of like-minded people.

Volunteer teaching

As fellow teachers, many of you will know the feeling… a class of beginners staring back at you, their native language different to yours and looks of apprehension on their faces. Despite all of this, as we got to know each other we all became more comfortable. The class was made up of 10 women, mostly from Eastern Ukraine, each with a different story. The course was beginner level and the students had similar levels of English. We followed a curriculum developed by a team based in Greece. It covered several areas from feelings and weather to asking for clarification and basic needs and questions.

The lessons involved lots of (questionable) drawings, gestures, fun activities and games! A highlight for me was a lesson on body parts where one of the students was my ‘glamourous assistant’. The class had to guess different body parts by sticking labelled post-it notes to their peers’ bodies. We did have a giggle when they found out that an elbow was in fact a stomach! One moment that will stay with me was one of the students’ children giving me the biggest hug when I left and saying ‘goodbye’ with the biggest grin on his face.

The experience I gained was invaluable and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute in some way. If you’re an English teacher looking to participate in volunteer teaching my advice is to go for it. Here are three top tips:

1) Do your research

Make sure the placement is right for you. Take time to explore your options and consider the impact you will have during your placement.

2) Consider your skills

What can bring to the organisation? We all have different skills. Make a list of your relevant skills and consider how you can add value.

3) Commit your time

Try to commit to at least four weeks of volunteer teaching. This keeps the lessons and approach consistent for students and gives you a chance to really see the impact of the work you do.


Are you interested in volunteer teaching?

Apply to be matched with organisations:Find out more about Indigo Volunteers Find out more about A drop in the Ocean.

Oxford University Press has a wide range of resources to support teaching Ukrainian students. Find out more.


Leanne Atherton is a qualified special education teacher with experience teaching both in the UK and internationally. She completed her PGCE PCET in further education at City of Bath College and currently teaches learners with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) at a special school in Oxfordshire. Leanne holds a TEFL qualification and has ELT experience teaching young learners in Thailand and Aboriginal students in Australia. She recently completed a Master’s in Education (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) where she explored the transition from school to further education for girls with autism.  

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