Volunteering is a positive-sum game

Oct 13, 2011
Volunteering is a positive-sum game
Photo credit: -marko under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Robin Bortner


I was completely unqualified for the job, but there was no competition.

Do you speak English? Why, yes. Do you know the basics of grammar? Maybe. I watched Grammar Rock in junior high. Great! The job is yours!

Somehow, when I volunteered to teach English as a second language to refugees, this wasn’t what I’d pictured.

There were more than 20 students in total, ranging from a child still in diapers to a woman I placed about 60. I smiled awkwardly, uncomfortable by their attentive gazes. I racked my brain and put my vocabulary through an emergency triage. What was most essential? What did I absolutely, essentially need to know to live in America?

We began with introduction phrases. “Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you.” They smiled and blankly shook my hand. “Handshake,” I said, pointing first to my hand and then making a making a shaking motion. “Hand. Shake.”

Maybe I needed to back up. “Robin,” I said, gesturing at myself. I pointed to the young boy in the front row. Eventually he got it. “Bahoon,” he said. I instantly scratched my plan to respond by spelling their names for them.

I grouped my students and explained personal pronouns. Stick drawings filled the whiteboard to illustrate tricky concepts like “mother” and “to go.” I laboriously encouraged the kids to walk and run on command, demonstrating those essential verbs.

One hot afternoon, we sat in the grass and played Duck Duck Goose (renamed Sun Sun Snake both to practice the S sound and because explaining the differences between ducks and geese seemed beyond me).

When my class ended three months later, my students were not fluent. Not even close. I still couldn’t pronounce everyone’s name. But they spoke enough—enough to buy food, (maybe) ask directions and answer the W questions.

I might have been a terrible teacher, but if I had done nothing, they wouldn’t know any English at all. Positive-sum game.

Despite everything, they always smiled. And so did I.

How have you experienced the rewards of volunteering?
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