Volunteering with teachers of refugees in Greece

I’ve just come to the end of 3 weeks in Greece (2 in Athens and 1 in Thessaloniki), volunteering as a teacher trainer for some of the volunteers there who are teaching English to adult refugees. It’s been both a challenging and very rewarding experience. Here’s some more info and a few personal reflections…

The teachers I worked with are based at various locations around Athens, including Project Elea in Eleonas Camp and Khora Community Centre in the city centre, and various locations around Thessaloniki, including Lifting Hands International in Serres and IHA and We Are Here in Nea Kavala camp. These volunteer teachers are bright, enthusiastic and extremely dedicated. Though most of them do not have any background in English language teaching, they all have the right attitude and motivation to develop their skills and make a real difference to their students.

Who were the teachers?

The thirty or so volunteer teachers I worked with across Athens and Thessaloniki came from a range of age, gender, nationality and first-language backgrounds. They were teaching in different contexts – some based in camps, others working in community centres which had an education department, others teaching in less formal environments, such as in homes, in cafés or in squats. Three of the teachers were themselves refugees, who had joined the team of volunteers within their communities. They were all incredibly committed and motivated to helping their students develop their English language skills.

Who were the students?

The students came from backgrounds as diverse as the teachers! Unlike most of the students I’ve taught in the past, these students were refugees, temporarily living in Greece on their journey to rebuilding their lives after past events had forced them to leave their countries of origin.

Despite these circumstantial differences from previous students I’d worked with in more stable and privileged environments, all the classes I visited were very much like any other in terms of the students’ mix of motivation levels, proficiency levels, personalities and learning preferences. Some students prefer speaking; some prefer writing; some want things to be explicitly explained by the teacher; others like to discover things for themselves; and so on. In this sense, the same principles of effective language teaching that work anywhere else also work here: teachers need to know their students, to pay attention to their goals, desires and efforts, to model and praise effective communicative strategies, and above all, to be patient, professional, kind and empathetic – whatever the circumstances, learning a language is not easy and it takes time!

What did we do?

To help the volunteers fill the gaps in their pedagogical skillset and meet the communicative needs of their students, it was important both to offer some general formal training and to visit individual classrooms to see what was happening there.

For the former, we met as a group over three full days, with two days aimed at less experienced teachers plus one day for those with more experience. There was a fixed timetable of focused workshops on various topics of importance to language teaching generally as well as some topics specific to working in a refugee context, including ‘classroom management’, ‘presenting and practising functional language/grammar/vocabulary’, ‘positive psychology in ELT for refugees’ and ‘developing literacy skills’.

For the latter, teachers invited me to attend their lessons to observe the teaching and learning. Afterwards, we would meet one-on-one and reflect on the lesson together, focusing on what the teacher was doing that had worked well and what they could do differently/additionally to make the students’ learning experience even more efficient and effective.

One of the better-equipped classrooms I visited in Athens. Enough chairs, almost enough table space, a whiteboard and pens. No heating.

What were my impressions of this experience?

I loved it. I found the discussions we had in the teacher training sessions were rich, enjoyable and enlightening – I’m quite sure I learned as much from the teachers as they did from me. And of course, it’s always rewarding to teach and train, as you see the difference that even apparently small new insights can make to the daily practices of your students and trainees.

Perhaps the most pleasant and surprising aspect of my time as a volunteer trainer was the overwhelming delight of teachers when I suggested observing their lessons! In most other contexts I’ve worked in, the mere mention of lesson observation fills many teachers with dread and apprehension. Quite the contrary here. When I emailed one teacher to confirm our observation the next day, she replied: “Yaaay! This is wonderful news. Many many thanks.” That was almost certainly a first for me!

Of course, it wasn’t all easy and cheerful. It would be remiss not to mention some of the more upsetting and poignant moments and insights from my time in Greece. Like the incredible sense of sheer boredom for many refugees that mingles with the frustration and desperation of being stuck in a foreign place, your entire life on hold, with so much uncertainty about your future and even your present.

Or the student in a beginner’s class that I observed who was really curious about why I was there. I tried to smile but not engage him in conversation (as it was distracting for the teacher, who he was supposed to be paying attention to!). At the end, he waited till all the students had left and asked me, with the confident air of a student who has learned a few key phrases and wants to use them, “Where are you from?” I answered, then asked where he was from. He said, “Iraq. And I’m human.” That took me aback. For one thing, why would I think anything else? And this guy barely speaks 50 words of English. Yet this is a phrase he’s learnt and feels important to share when he meets a new volunteer.

Or the two ridiculously adorable little boys, brothers aged about 4 and 5, running around the volunteer office, flashing cheeky smiles, giggling, climbing on my colleague, dancing to music from the other room and trying to get more and more biscuits from me after I offered them one. One of the boys eventually toddled off and my colleague explained that he was limping because he’s got a problem with his leg. He spent 3 months in hospital last year after arriving in Greece because he’d nearly drowned on the boat coming over, then the motor from the boat fell on his leg and damaged it. They managed to save his life but now he has a limp. And he still runs around and plays like any other cute little 5-year-old boy, blissfully unaware of how unusual his childhood is.

But, heart-wrenching stories aside, my overriding impression of the refugees and the volunteers here is one of incredible resilience, creativity, goodwill and humanity. I had a good laugh with one of my new friends, a volunteer teacher who is himself a refugee, when we said goodbye on my last day. I said I might be back one day and hoped to see him again; he said optimistically, “I won’t be here!” so I said, “true, I hope I don’t see you again!” and we laughed. He even said he thought he might come back and visit one day – to volunteer as a teacher again. What a great heart.

And another great highlight of my experience in Greece was seeing two lessons on two different days by one of the teachers who had attended my training sessions, also a refugee who’s now volunteering as an English teacher. The first one wasn’t great – and deliberately so, because he wanted me to see what his teaching was like before he’d had any input at all. We talked about it afterwards, I gave him some feedback, he assessed his strengths and weaknesses, then I came back a couple of days later to see him teach again. He delivered such a good lesson, it was barely recognisable compared to the first one. He did a great job, his students were evidently engaged and clearly more confident and accurate in using some language at the end of the lesson which had been new to them only an hour before. I felt so proud! Being a teacher/trainer really has some golden moments.

What did the volunteers think of all this?

At the end of the training days, I asked the teachers to share their honest opinions of what they’d appreciated from the training and what they’d like more of in future. Here’s a small selection of their comments:

Because I’m very new to TEFL teaching and I have little idea of where to begin, it’s very useful to have some guidance and materials. Meeting peers was very supportive. … It was all useful. It was all new to me, so it was enthralling. … I now have a lot of new ideas about classroom lessons and activities that will help in my current work with refugees, and I also have some ideas about how to carve out a future for myself as an ESL teacher (perhaps).

I think learning to create a weekly syllabus was especially useful as I am running a school right now and this has given me a clearer idea of how to organize my teaching so that all students’ needs are addressed. I also really enjoyed brainstorming and swapping groups/pairs, I even used one of the brainstorming subjects “Motivation” in my intermediate class and students loved it. It was a great success. I learnt not just about what the curriculum of the course involved but also by observing you and how you were as a teacher, your techniques and approach, e.g. how to check for understanding when giving instructions, how to organize pair/group work etc.

Demo lessons made the biggest impact and were the most memorable part of the course.


I’d like to learn more about teaching real beginners – students who barely speak the language.

Perhaps if the course and the workshops would have taken place at the weekend it would have been easier for me to participate more but since this was a completely free of charge opportunity I am just grateful and could not ask for more!

This kind of feedback gives an indication of the value and importance of teacher training – not only for volunteer teachers, of course, but especially for them. They are working in an environment which doesn’t have the luxuries of materials, resources and developmental support that teachers in many larger and better-funded schools and organisations have. Teaching a second language is hard enough for those who are well-qualified and well-resourced; doing so under such challenging circumstances is nothing short of heroic.

I found working with these teachers and their students very rewarding and illuminating, and I’d strongly recommend that fellow teacher trainers consider coming here to volunteer in future, too. The turnover of teachers is quite high, given that they are all volunteers and largely self-funded; so by offering to train a group of teachers together, you can help pass on skills in a sort of ‘cascade’ fashion, where one person trains multiple people, who helps multiple others, and so on.

Further reading/learning

One of the teachers who attended my training course in Athens has been blogging for several months now about her experiences volunteering across Greece. To hear more about people’s stories and what’s happening elsewhere (including outside classrooms), I highly recommend reading her blog.

Other ELT bloggers have also written about their experience of volunteering in similar contexts, such as Lindsey Clark. She writes very eloquently about the real, everyday needs of refugees trying to learn English, and why it’s so important to find teachers who can stay long-term.

If you want to learn more about getting involved in humanitarian work, there are two MOOCs I know of which might be helpful:

You may also find this psychologist’s guide to how aid workers can keep on top of their own (mental) health useful and interesting.

Want to get involved?

First of all: whatever you do, please be sensitive. Remember that refugee camps are not tourist attractions. For my part, I don’t pretend that a couple of weeks of volunteering with teachers here has given me a thorough and deep understanding of what people are going through. I can only say that I’ve had a glimpse into the daily reality of some of those experiencing first-hand what is perhaps the biggest global humanitarian crisis of my generation. I’m glad to have met the people I worked with on this trip, I wish them all the best for their present and future lives, and I can only hope that my small contribution has made some positive difference.

Now, the practical part:

If you want to learn more about volunteering with some of the organisations based in Athens, you might find it helpful to visit the Project Elea, Khora Community Centre or No Border School websites.

There’s also a volunteer recruitment organisation that works in partnership with Help Refugees, called IndiGo Volunteers, who work with 30+ organisations throughout Greece to supply volunteers. You can find more information at http://www.northerngreecevolunteers.com/. If you’d like to volunteer, just fill out the online form and IndiGo will process the application and get back to you. If you want to teach, you can indicate that you’re looking for a teaching volunteering placement. You’ll likely be paired up with a non-formal education organisation such as Open Cultural Center, We Are Here, Lifting Hands International or another similar organisation in northern Greece.

You can also get involved through refugeeEd. They focus specifically on understanding what the educational needs are. Their founder has an educational background and has volunteered with some of their projects herself, within education. RefugeeEd can match people’s experience with a project where they would be most useful as a volunteer trainer/mentor or classroom teacher.

And finally, if you want to help but you’re not able to give much time and/or your physical presence, you might like to contribute something from Project Elea’s general Amazon Wishlist, or from their specific book/education wishlist. And Khora doesn’t have a wishlist at present, but to help them continue to provide 21 lessons a day, you might like to donate money to the building for general costs.

Motivational mural on the library wall at Eleonas refugee camp: “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

3 thoughts on “Volunteering with teachers of refugees in Greece

  1. Hi Laura,
    What an excellent post. I’m so happy that you went to NBS and Khora 😊… and it’s interesting that we experienced similar emotions. The enthusiasm and commitment of the teachers there is indeed absolutely incredible. Hats off to the volunteer community in Athens.!

  2. Μany,many congratulations and thanks Laura for very interesting and informative of your teaching experience in refugee camps. Good luck to you always. 🍀☀️💐

    1. I accidentally omitted the noun ……report ! …..very interesting and informative report……….
      Sorry teacher!! 🙂😊😒

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