When I first caught up with Michael—who is, by the way, both proficient in French and Spanish, and a University of Birmingham graduate—he told me he had been “feeling a little bit stupid” lately.
“I’m learning Arabic,” he explains cheerfully, “and it feels like you're regressing to an infant stage of learning. Like you’re going back to the building blocks, and to the confusion of words that sound very similar.”
This feeling is what Michael calls the “vulnerability of learning,” and it helped him understand the mindsets of his students at Paddington that much better. “The pleasure of learning languages is going through the pain and mistakes,” he says. “It’s something very humbling. You want to be able to express things that are more complicated . . . but you only have four ingredients to say it.”
Volunteering at Paddington Academy may be (literally) miles away from volunteering with refugee children in Calais, but Michael insists the two experiences aren’t all that different. Out of the 600 children in the camp, one third are preliterate, while another third come from affluent and academically privileged families. Although there are obvious disparities between learning levels, Michael says that the program in Calais is about “offering a space where [all children] feel comfortable to read and be around teachers.”
When I suggest that we’ve landed back at understanding that same vulnerability of learning inherent in learning Arabic or French, Michael agrees. “Tutoring in Paddington Academy gave me more confidence to engage with a group dynamic and different levels of learning.... Everyone wins, really.
"You can live in a bit of a bubble tutoring, but you need to know the curriculum—what [students] are facing at school and what they are learning at school and what they are struggling with. Volunteering is essential to that experience. You need to build the bridge between your [private] tutoring and the needs of the people.”
Michael pauses for a moment while he struggles to further articulate the importance of learning from and connecting with students from all academic backgrounds. He good-naturedly settles on, “Step outside of your bubble, get into another bubble, and have a bubbling time!” We couldn’t agree more, Michael. Thank you!
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