I felt very happy and excited because she seemed the sort of person we might talk to, who would understand our work, and maybe provide a point of reference for our group. And when I looked for contact details I found very sadly that she had died recently. But that led me here, blogging for the first time in my life. I'll give the skeleton of the story here and add every month. Maybe we can find people doing similar work and share experiences.
To introduce myself - I'm Julie Douglas. In 2005, my husband died, and both sons left home. I resigned from my work and completed a CELTA course planning to teach somewhere exotic for a while. But I was offered other work in South Africa and stayed.
Talk English though is the subject of this blog and we are a group of volunteer English teachers who give free English lessons on Saturday mornings in Duran, South Africa. I must explain how it started. Our CELTA course at IH in Durban was stressful, to say the least, and the group bonded strongly, as tends to happen in times of duress. For practice, we taught 20 French-speaking refugees from DRC. Six were medical professionals - 2 doctors, 3 nurses and a medical student. Most others were well-educated but none could work, except as car or security guards. Car theft in SA is rife and we pay a few rands for someone to watch the car - who often turns out to be a doctor or engineer from DRC.
When CELTA training finished, 2 of us - myself and Sarah Ralfe - offered more free lessons to our students on Saturday mornings. We had the use of classrooms at a primary school in the notorious Point area of Durban, where many refugees live. Durban IH let us use their resources and photocopiers, and our CELTA trainers from Australia and New Zealand advised and encouraged us. Three students arrived the first week, 10 the second, and soon numbers were up to 50. They ranged from absolute beginners with no recognisable language (Lingala or one of many dialects) to fairly fluent English speakers. We SOSed for more teachers and 2 more from our CELTA goup joined, augmented by friends and colleagues with TESOL training or experience.
Today 60+ students come to our Saturday lessons - still many Congolese refugees, but also from other African countries, 10% South Africans and one Russian. Twelve volunteer teachers work at 4 ability levels in groups of 3 , and plan lessons together but teach once every third week. Non-teaching volunteers organise a student library, registration, administration and time-keeping.
We've had to solve many practical problems, but usually things run smoothly enough. Large numbers are a constant challenge. We don't turn anyone away, and that means curriculum continuity must be balanced with the need for drop-in, stand alone lessons. We tried being strict and taking waiting lists when classes became too large, but our students' lives as asylum seekers are often harsh and unpredictable, and it just didn't work. Teachers have become very skilled at providing an oasis of calm in fractured lives, making lessons fun and coping with whatever is presented. We meet once a month for planning and professional development.
2010 will be our fifth year of existence against all odds and with no funding except for small donations from local organisations and individuals. The 4 CELTA originals are still involved. Teachers become addicted to Talk English. There's nothing like the satisfaction of teaching really keen students and witnessing their progress, not only in speaking English, but also getting their lives back together. We'd love to link with other similar groups - if any exist.
Best wishes from Julie to anyone who reads about us. Until next month ...