We often feel disempowered because it feels like as individuals, we can have very little impact. Here, Gerhard Erasmus challenges that thinking with his own personal reflections, and gives practical suggestions of how educators can get involved within their local communities.
Let’s start with a little bit of context. There are 108 million displaced people around the world. That’s just under the population of Japan. 43 million of them are children. That is more than the population of Canada. 333 million children live on less than $2 a day, which is similar to the population of the United States. 1.4 billion children globally live on less than $6 a day. More than the population of China. Those numbers are staggering. So can we even try to start doing something as individuals?
I recently did a talk for the IATEFL YLTSIG Web conference on how educators can reach refugee children. While planning the talk, and talking to teachers, I realised that it can be very intimidating topic. Teachers often feel completely disempowered, and feel that they cannot really make a difference. While I was somewhat disappointed by the realisation, I must admit that I have also felt like that. I have also felt completely overwhelmed trying to ‘make the world a better place’ and then feel like I am shouting against a typhoon strength wind. But the more I did things, the more I realised how quickly the impact of your actions can create momentum, and the feeling that I am only one person, can be overcome only through taking action. And that action will ignite others. And from 2, you have 4 and 8, and then instead of 7 billion people saying ‘I am only one person’ you can have many individuals doing something small that becomes something big. These realisations have inspired in this blog, where I will look at some of the things we have done, which hopefully inspire 1 or 2, or hopefully many more of you, to do the same in your communities.
We generally feel like we have to teach because that is what we are. We are teachers, and our aim is for our students to learn. People who are hungry do not learn as well as those who are fed. I have said on a number of occasions, ‘If you are concerned that the money you are donating to charities like the World Food Program, or UNICEF is being used to run the charities rather than go to people in need, why don’t you take the money you were willing to donate, and feed the homeless in your city?’ And if you don’t have money, you could have a look at volunteering opportunities.
Something we have therefore done, as an organisation, is to donate money to a restaurant (a place that makes lunchboxes rather than a fancy restaurant) and the restaurant then prints meal vouchers that are given to a local school. The school knows which children are from low-income families, or which children need meals, and the school then provides them with the vouchers. The school has no idea who is paying for the meals, and neither do the children, but the point of doing it is to ensure that children have food, and it doesn’t matter who does it. What matters is that it gets done!
Children in care
You might be surprised by how many or few Children’s Homes there are in your local area. The reality is you might actually actively have to look for them. In my context, many of the children who are placed in care have not lost their parents. They were often taken out of their homes due to abuse, or because the parents (or single parent) are in prison, often for drug-related offenses or sexual abuse. It is heartbreaking thinking about children in such circumstances, and it makes you realise how much of a negative effect education for profit can have. These children often do not have access to books, they have nobody to help them with homework. In an environment where many children learn English in language schools, there is no way they are able to pay tuition fees or afford the materials.
As an individual, you can donate books, read at a local library and invite children from the local community, tutor a few of the children, and give some of your time. As an organisation, you can support teachers who want to help, and maybe even count an hour or two a month of their contract as part of an outreach program. You can also donate books, but most significantly, and if you are able to, you could offer free places on some of your courses to children in need. This can have a significant impact in your local community. And all of this contribute to a greater awareness of global issues, and hopefully helps to guide the professional development of teachers. What better way than to share, and show you care, and then let your students do the same.
While we often focus on communication skills, and maybe exams like the Trinity or Cambridge proficiency tests, our students arguably should also be exposed to problems in their local communities. Rather than a generic ‘save the planet,’ or ‘save electricity’ lesson, why not really engage them with issues in their local community. My son, who is also a student at my school, teaches chess at a local orphanage, and for him, it gives him the opportunity to learn how to teach and perhaps follow his dream of becoming a chess coach. I am avoiding mentioning other students here simply because what they do in terms of outreach is personal. But students often do want to help, and they don’t know where to start. And often, they feel just like you. I am only one person, what difference can I make.
What do you get in return?
Almost a decade ago, a student walked into my previous school. He was a friend of another student. He was from a low-income family and had saved up enough money for one three-month term. He was in a technical high school meaning he wouldn’t be able to go to university but wanted to improve his English. We offered him on of the free places we had, and the rest is history. He managed to self-study for the university entrance exam, got a degree in German and passed a CEFR B2 test for German. He also passed Cambridge B2 First (previously known as FCE) and is currently preparing for a C1 English exam. As he was 16 at the time he first came to school, we allowed him to do things like clean the classrooms and the bathrooms, pack books, and eventually he helped with fetching and dropping off students. And now? He manages my afterschool program and is one of the best employees I have ever had.
And the best thing is, we have just made an offer to one of the students from our local orphanage to work for us, and we can support her through high school and university. And who better to lead and manage her, than my best employee. And maybe, I will have two brilliant employees who understand hardship, understand the struggles students might have, and have tons of empathy. I started as one person, and I am slowly but surely building an army. And you can do the same.
This feeds directly into creating the kind of place where people want to work, and if you can recruit and reward people who care, your organisation will become a place of caring and empathy. It can have a significant impact on staff motivation, staff retention, and overall wellbeing of the people in your organisation.
When you help others, you might, and you probably will, share in the emotions. It can be heartbreaking. But it is worth it and it all starts with one step. So, I urge you in 2024, take a step, and then keep walking. Whether that be a minute little offer of assistance or something bigger. I am often asked, ‘Why do you do this?’ And my answer is, ‘Because nobody else will.’ I am starting to realise that is the wrong answer. It should be, ‘because nobody else realises they can too.’ It’s up to you.