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    (Pt 4) A Crash Course as a Volunteer Teacher and a Worthwhile Venture

    Teaching English to Refugees in Lesvos Greece as a Global Volunteer Teacher

    A Note from Carlos: Teachers and Educators – Thank you. What you do is invaluable.

    I want to open this with a thank you. Thank you to educators of all kinds, teachers, administrators, and facilitiators. Official and unofficial. Thank you for dedicating your life to the pursuit of building minds and empowering people with knowledge. I’ve realized during this experience how much knowledge can improve the quality of a person’s life and their ability to realize their own potential. Whether the knowledge is English, math, history, current affairs, the sciences, or any other topic that helps us understand, appreciate, and interact with the world around us, knowledge helps us control our destinies. Knowledge empowers us to pursue our own aims, goals and objectives. Though knowledge can be attained through personal experiences and hard knocks, teachers allow willing students to stand on the shoulders of giants and reach higher heights than would otherwise be possible in any one person’s lifetime. Anyone that dedicates their life to furthering the individual in such a way and consequently furthering humanity as a result is invaluable to any society that hopes to have a future.During my short time volunteer teacher trying my best to teach English to refugees, I had a glimpse of how difficult the craft of teaching is.

    Taking information and breaking it down in such a way that it is not only absorbed by the student but becomes a tool in the future is a complex and intense process. It also empowers the student in a way I underestimated and have a completely new appreciation of. Exhibiting emotional intelligence and empathy enough to do this in such a way that the student learns while enjoying the learning process is an ever-changing and difficult dance that few can do well.

    The administrators and staff that selflessly stand behind teachers deserve an applause as well. The effort of making education possible is just as priceless. I’ve realized how teachers and administrators are not only charged with giving knowledge but shaping each person that crosses their path in a way that makes the student a better person…even if this isn’t in the school’s mission statement, it usually becomes an aim of the teachers I’ve met.

    You are all VERY underappreciated for how you make everything else in society possible in such a self-sacrificing way. It is not an easy task, so thank you for stepping up the challenge.

    And for every teacher that has ever put up with my crap while keeping my arrogance in check while giving me tools I didn’t realize I was being given, thank you for every second of your labor. For every other teacher out there, thank you for what you do. Your efforts are irreplaceable.

    Now…on to the story of teaching English to refugees on Lesvos…


    Part 4: A Crash Course as a Volunteer Teacher and a Worthwhile Venture


    More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis

    Doubling down on Teaching English

    During my period working as a translator, I withdrew from my NGO a bit, no longer spotting for boats filled with refugees on the coastline at night but still teaching English classes. Though the classes were slightly off the cuff at first, the Irishman and I were actually learning quickly, and so were our students. I’d honestly never been with a group of people so eager to learn.

    The classes were held a couple of times a week at whatever location was available. Sometimes it would be at our cozy little café and sometimes it would be at a lakeside restaurant. Through all of the experiences on the island, I think the activities in this class were the most beneficial.

    During the English class, the students, Kurds, Arabs, and Afghans, were fully engaged and chastising each other if members of the group checked out mentally. Afterwards, the students had the option to hang out at the café, have a meal, or walk to a nearby beach and go for a swim before we drove them home later.

    I actually learned a lot about teaching and mentoring people during this experience, much more than I expected to. One of the foremost lessons was that if you expect a student to learn anything, the base level needs of feeling safe and being in a good physical (and emotional/mental) state is the basis for getting anyone to learn. Granted, I’ve heard this on TED talks about teaching inner city youth but it clicked in a completely different way when I was the one trying to share knowledge and adapt to the students.

    One day during an English class, we were having a fairly rough classroom session and it looked like the students weren’t retaining anything, so I stopped. I sat down, pulled out my Mary Poppins style kit bag, pulled out a loaf of bread, a jar of strawberry jelly, and jar of peanut butter (creamy, not crunchy) and taught them how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I think they were confused at first, then appalled at this weird food, then they decided to give it a shot. I actually had a couple of milk boxes in my bag, but I wasn’t sharing those (they wouldn’t appreciate them enough yet), I just sipped them as I watched them confusedly correcting each other on how to properly make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was official. We were having peanut butter jelly time. After everyone had one, they looked around and nodded in approval…then devoured my whole loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter. They told me about the food lines in Moria, and how they’re so uncomfortable and violent that most will often skip as many meals as they can – usually just breakfast is all they can stand. This is why they were so hungry.

    Now that they were checked back in, my next question. “What would you all like to learn?”

    “We want to learn how to have a conversation. And we want to know how to tell people not to use curse words at us,” was the first response. Everyone nodded in agreement.

    Apparently, many of the refugee’s Greek had become good enough that they could understand when the police in the camps were cursing at them, talking about them, or using racist speech. The refugees wanted to know how to politely communicate in English that they understood what was being said and that they didn’t appreciate being cursed at. Done. We spent the rest of the class on that. Every student was awake, engaged, and left with a smile on their face.

    From that day forth, I always brought peanut butter and jelly sandwich material, I always reserved 30 minutes of the class to discuss whatever the students wanted (if there was a topic), and I began working with another teacher on what we called “the English 500” project, to get the students conversing in English as quickly as possible.

    The English 500 Project

    Unknowingly, each volunteer teacher in my organization had been doing tons of great research. We would usually chat casually a few times a week sharing the funny stories of our classes and the quirky experiences that tended to come up, but the most interesting thing that the teachers were noticing (but not realizing) were the patterns of speech (or incorrect speech) that the refugees used. The patterns of improper English could easily be traced back to the grammar of their mother tongues (Arabic, Farsi, Pashto) and from the process of learning English and speaking English with non-native English speakers.

    Chatting with my friend, another English teacher, we came up with the idea that we could, based on these patterns, create a book of essential English grammar to correct the most common errors, reinforce the basic grammar needed to speak English, and teach/reinforce the most essential 500-600 words in English.

    If we could somehow systematize all of these, basic grammar, corrections for common errors, and the essential 500 words, we could actually focus on reinforcing these basics and get our students to a conversation ready level of fluency fairly quickly. We could add situational vocabulary (dealing with police, communicating at a hospital, renting an apartment) from there. If we created the materials ourselves, they would be free of cost beyond printing and free to distribute. If the whole book was under 50 pages we could have it printed for 1 Euro, cover all of the concepts with the students and then give them a book to refer back to and teach each other with. Yes, courses existed, but they were all either too basic, assumed that the teacher had months with the student, or wasted time on vocabulary that wasn’t essential to the daily life of a refugee. We were aiming for maximum fluency as quickly as possible by focusing on mastering the basics and encouraging creativity to fill in the gaps.

    After a few weeks of writing, testing it on the students, and a lot of editing and creativity from my friend we finished three books. The first book contained 500 essential words in English. The second was a 20 page book with essential grammar (most frequently used past, present, and future tenses, pronouns, basic structures). The third was a teaching curriculum designed for people who have never taught English before and didn’t know where to start.

    I have to be honest, this is one of my proudest accomplishments that we achieved while I was on the island. If all goes well, I hope to use this curriculum to teach people again in the future.

    If you know of anyone who is teaching English with limited experience and resources, feel free to send them the link to our page “Giving Back” at All of the materials are freely available for all to use and distribute. If they work for you or you have recommendations for improvement, we’d love to hear from you on how to improve and keep these free materials circulating to as many people as possible.

    – Continue to Part 5: Riots in the Refugee Camp and The Exodus of the Kurds – Politics, Cowardice, and Voluntourism –

    More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis

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      About A Brother Abroad


      Carlos is a nomad, slow traveler, and writer dedicated to helping others live abroad and travel better by using his 7+ years of experience living abroad and background as a management consultant and financial advisor to help other nomad and expats plot better paths for an international lifestyle. Click here to learn more about Carlos's story.