John Bird, a retired primary school headteacher, writes about his reasons for volunteering with Migrant Help and shares his experiences. 

Until earlier this year my entire professional career has been spent working in primary education. I became a primary school headteacher in 1989 and in my last three years of paid employment I was the CEO of a Primary Academy. 

When I retired last year, I didn’t feel I was ready for a life of day-time television so I sought out a range of volunteering opportunities that would give me the chance of engaging in different professional experiences whilst enabling me to use those skills that I had acquired over the years.

This search, via the website, led me to Migrant Help and I was immediately impressed by the professional and rigorous appointment system conducted by the team. I felt welcomed by the other volunteers as well as by the clients themselves. I began the task of learning how to engage vulnerable people with needs that ranged from little or no English to those of able learners with quite advanced language skills.

My motivation as a primary school teacher has always been, in the widest sense, a political one. By equipping children with a range of skills founded on the core values of respect to each other and general fairness, one is providing tools that enable both individuals and wider society not just to survive but to be truly human and to thrive. In working with our clients I try to follow the same values as my motivation.

Slavery is arguably the worst form of abuse human beings can inflict on one another, taking away human dignity and respect under the various names of profit, greed and criminality. Slavery runs contrary to every value that I hold dear and can have no place, either directly or indirectly, in free democratic societies. It is the desire to make a statement of solidarity against such abuse to our fellow human beings across the world that motivates me to volunteer.

Of course, what we can do in class is limited by time, circumstances and the relatively short periods many clients are with us. It takes time to assess an individual’s needs, build trust and to engage their personality. It is not uncommon to be just starting to make concrete progress when the client has to move on. Sometimes I have come to class with various activities prepared only to meet new clients with very different needs that require a different session from the one planned. Such obstacles are to be expected, given the nature of our work, and must be approached philosophically with good humour.

My principle aim, therefore, as a volunteer English tutor, is to make the session enjoyable so that the clients have a comfortable learning environment to absorb both the English language and find out more about our way of life and those of other people around the globe.

I try to teach the clients as much English as I can, but most of all I want the clients to realise that first and foremost most they are with people who want to help and who do care about them. Initially, clients often see us as another branch of officialdom and we have to change that perception.

I am lucky to have a life where most things that happen are pleasant and in general, I see the best of human nature. In most instances that is not the case for our clients and I feel if they can just glimpse something more positive, then in a very small but vitally important way, it might just begin to raise their morale and change their worldview.

This is, I trust, a tiny but essential step to increasing the clients’ resilience and equipping them to avoid the exploitative snares that are so frequently set for them by the wider world.

John Bird