Her parents are both academics working at Otago, and while growing up, Helen found herself being “dragged” around Europe on her parent’s sabbaticals. She had to enrol in new schools and faced the daunting challenge of learning new languages.
“My parents were just like “you’ll learn, you’ll learn.” But I had the help of some really fantastic second language teachers in those schools, and they just gave me so much more confidence and I could make friends.”
Based in Wellington now, Helen just wanted to do something that was helpful to the community. She recalled how useful having a one-on-one language tutor was for her.
“So I thought, if I could do the same here in New Zealand, to people that really need it, that would be fantastic. I haven’t been in the same situation as many of the English learners that ELP works with, but I have been in similar linguistic situations. It can be seriously debilitating when you don’t know the language.”
Helen attended a Volunteer Home Tutor training workshop at English Language Partners Wellington late last year and got matched to her first English learner about a month after that.
“ELP runs you through the course at the beginning, so you really feel like you are equipped with information and strategies that are really going to help someone in a very practical and specific sense.
“I have this new toolbox of skills, and an amazing resource library at my disposal.”
ELP staff pair volunteer home tutors to their learners through a rigorous matching process. Helen was paired with Bawi, a young woman from Myanmar who has been in New Zealand for about two years.
“Bawi is great! We got to know each other really quickly, as we are of similar age, and I go and see her once a week at her house for English lessons.”
“Her language level has improved so much – she was a beginner, but we could definitely get our points across – it just took a lot of gesticulation and speaking really slowly. Since then, she’s really thrown herself into English.”
“Sometimes, I even just call her out of the blue to get her to feel more confident on the phone. We’ve done phone classes, Zoom classes, Whatsapp classes – I thought it was really important for us to be focussing on that as we move through pandemic levels. At any stage, we could go back into lockdown, so I wanted her to be prepared for online learning. She’s young and technologically onto it, so that’s really helpful.”
Helen is aware of the importance of understanding English to potential employment and involvement in the community.
“English opens up the ability to socialise and be around people, and I think that’s so important for integration.”
“Luckily, Bawi has been really good about talking to her neighbours and trying to get involved in the Myanmar community in Wellington. She’s so proactive about her English learning and getting involved.”
It feels really good because you know you are helping somebody, and it’s genuinely a lovely feeling to see her improve.
“Every time we have a lesson together, we have a little “YES!” moment. Bawi holds herself to a very high standard, she’s a perfectionist and she really likes to get things right. So we’ll go over things many times, and I know she appreciates it when I am a bit of a harsh teacher!”
“There have been some really good moments where I felt I’ve been able to give real-world advice. It’s a nice feeling knowing that you can be of direct assistance you know?”
“At the beginning, I came to each lesson armed with plan A, plan B – really prepared. As time went on, I helped her enrol in other ELP classes too, so I was aware that she was doing a lot and I didn’t want to bombard her with grammar. She likes the activities and exercises, but we also do a lot of discussion-based catchups now, which are a bit less formal.”
“Still to this day though, I still bring along one thing at least that we can work around – even if it’s just a news article I’ve found that she might like, we can base a whole lesson around that. We can talk about it, we can write about it, we can look for all the verbs in it…. So you can definitely do a lot with just one piece of material, so always good to have something up your sleeve.”
“A lot of our discussions are based around certain things that Kiwis say, and a little bit of te reo too. She likes her wee road trips and camping trips around the region, so she’s really embracing the Kiwi lifestyle, which is nice to see.”
Helen considers Bawi to be a friend more than a student now.
“At the beginning, we did a lot of kind of formal learning, but now, we do something focussed at the beginning and then end up just chatting. I ask her to tell me about her week, or how things are going at home, hows her son and things like that.”
“Working with Bawi is so fantastic because she is so driven. It’s easy to match that energy when your student is so engaged.”
“It feels really good because you know you are helping somebody, and it’s genuinely a lovely feeling to see her improve. These possibilities that she considered very long-term goals are coming closer and closer, so it’s really satisfying.”
“It’s an amazing opportunity to engage with someone else, the same age, but doing completely different things in her daily life… like raising a kid! I’ve learned a lot about raising a child, about Myanmar, and the whole experience is a refreshing reminder that the world is bigger than my own little world where I’m just studying all the time.”
“I feel like I’m well-positioned now to help Bawi with normal daily challenges that arise: helping enrol her kid into pre-school, scheduling doctors’ appointments, double-checking everything is all good with documents and daily administrative stuff. I’m here to help with English, but also can help holistically too.”
“And it all starts with the language skills. If you want to help someone, you should definitely get involved.”
English Language Partners runs regular Volunteer Tutor Training workshops nationwide.