Christchurch teacher empowering former refugees through NZSL

Learner Stories

Christchurch teacher Theresa Williams' teaching journey has been unlike most. She teaches New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) to a group of former refugees, a journey that has taken her to Bhutan and Nepal to understand the cultures of the learners she has been working closely with for several years.

Theresa’s Story

Theresa’s journey with NZSL began at the Ara Institute of Canterbury where she studied human services. NZSL was one of the options and she thought, “that’s what I want to do as a career. I just loved it.”

After living in Australia for some years, Theresa returned to Christchurch in 2008 and enrolled in a night class which reignited her passion for NZSL. In 2012, Theresa began volunteering at English Language Partners (ELP), which eventually led to her current teaching role at the organisation.

“English Language Partners saw something in me that I did not see in myself. They have always been so supportive.”

Theresa’s love of secondhand shopping also helped develop her NZSL skills after meeting two Deaf workers at her local Salvation Army Family Store. “I began volunteering at the Salvation Army every Friday on my day off, working beside them and learning their language.”

Teaching New Zealand Sign Language

Theresa currently teaches a small group of learners, four times a week. The learners are from Bhutan and need specialised help to settle well and succeed in New Zealand. One learner is deaf, and two have some residual hearing.

Persecuted and displaced from Bhutan, they spent years in refugee camps in Nepal, before arriving in New Zealand. With little or no formal education, including formal sign language, they embarked on a new journey of learning NZSL as well as learning how to read and write in English.

“NZSL empowers them to have a voice, a right everyone deserves. They are equal members of society and should never feel anything less,” says Theresa.

Theresa has a strong interest in the learners and their outcomes. She travelled to Bhutan and Nepal in 2016 to immerse herself in their cultures.

In 2018, the class was proud to win ACE Aotearoa’s (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) ‘Community-based programme of the year, Tangata Tiriti’.

Growing Confidence

Seeing the learners’ confidence grow is the most rewarding part of the job, says Theresa.

“I love seeing my learners empowered with confidence, using sign language within the community and taking their language home to teach their families what they learnt that day,” she explains.

Theresa has also taught her learners how to use local services, such as cafes and buses.

“I had taken them to cafes and taught them how to order a coffee. Then they started going themselves and ordering coffees for other people at our centre,” explains Theresa.

The learners have also learnt how to use the bus. This enables them to travel independently without their families and join Deaf Club, run by the Deaf Society of Canterbury. Deaf Club allows the learners to connect with the Deaf community, something they would not have the confidence to do without knowing NZSL or how to use local amenities.

"As any teacher will tell you, I am blessed to walk along their new journey with them.”  

“Just seeing those little achievements, but to me, they are big achievements,” says Theresa.

Theresa and her learners credit English Language Partners for the support they receive. “We love what ELP represents. For me, that is respect, diversity and reaching potential. ELP has taught my learners that they and their outcomes matter.”

“I love coming to school because my teacher is nice and helps me learn NZSL and English,” says Prem, a learner in the class.

Importance of NZSL Week

Every year, New Zealand celebrates New Zealand Sign Language Week (NZSL Week), providing a chance for Theresa’s learners to share their language.  

“NZSL Week makes them feel more involved in the community.”

“Other teachers at English Language Partners get involved too. My learners and I often visit other classes at the centre to teach NZSL greetings” says Theresa.

The learners also go to the primary school across the road to teach children how to sign.

This year, Theresa’s learners ventured to a Nespresso store in Christchurch’s CBD to teach staff NZSL greetings. In exchange, they participated in a recycling lesson, learning about Nespresso coffee pod recycling.

Theresa says her learners love seeing people give NZSL a go. “They like to see people try NZSL, even if it is not quite accurate. We encourage everyone to give it a go.”


NZSL Week runs from 6-12 May 2024. Visit the NZSL Week website for more information.

If you or someone you know would benefit from the specialised New Zealand Sign Language class, please contact our Christchurch Centre for more information.

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