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LET “PAPER AIRPLANES” FLY: Tutoring a refugee


· Tutors

"The last few months of my life has welcomed a new challenge, tutoring a refugee online by committing a two-hour part of my weekly time. In this brief note, I attempt to reflect on my own experience, a path connecting ELT and volunteering, with a view to some overall information about the non-profit organization, Paper Airplanes (PA), which has actualized this experience.

Hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Yemen and other regional conflict areas are far from access to matriculate to or continue university due to several barriers such as language and finance. Based on this pure reality, PA initiated a free tutoring programme to access people from conflict areas and teach English, Turkish, computer coding for women and journalism to youth and adults. The organization matches the tutor and the student, and sessions are held on Skype on a weekly basis.

From a quick review of my own experience, I should reflect on two points: re-evaluating the use of technological tools and revising my teaching. Not with standing being personally very much interested in online courses and use of technological tools to increase flexibility of the learner, it was beyond my guess how to facilitate Google Classroom and Skype to reach thousands, some of whom have access to the Internet by their one and only technological device, a mobile phone. Also, integrating online collaboration tools, clickers, lecture-capture tools do not function as a free option but a necessity for your teaching. They become vital tools that allows you to touch your student, know her/him better, give more access to more information and practice.

Projecting to the beginning of my involvement in PA today, I see how confident I was feeling in terms of teaching and curriculum implementation, and I was not expecting a novelty peculiar to this programme. Once I was accepted as a tutor, I enrolled a Google Classroom and had an online training not only about teaching methodology but about the status of refugees and how to teach a person displaced due to conflict, and I was also trained how to care my own “self” through this experience. However, not until the first session did the reality actualize. No matter how many hours and how many students I taught and how many times I tried to tell the power of the language to my students, it was my first time I came to a realization of what it means to learn English for the ones displaced: social involvement, more job opportunities, access to education, feeling safe to mobilize at your own will and move on with your life! And volunteer tutors are the medium to make this happen.

This brings me to a new understanding of teaching. It is not simple teaching, but revising your teaching skills as well. Seeing how a basic topic such as “family” or “traditions” and cliché warm up questions may turn into a stressful subject for a person displaced, as a teacher you go back to the basics to plan your lesson as if it is your first time teaching the subject. And energy you need comes from this autonomous learner’s motivation to achieve.

Moreover, as a teacher, I have found a further opportunity to not only teach a certain subject, but also mentor my student. The tailor-made curriculum prepared by the organization provides the tutor with a detailed lesson plan, materials and exams. However, I have been through times to take initiatives and redesign some parts of the lesson according to the needs of my learner. The person, who fundamentally deserves equal opportunities to access education, experiences conflict in her/his country. This is where English teaching skills become valuable again and as a teacher you find yourself coaching your student through applications. The feedback you provide for a presentation becomes a real evaluation for a prospective position abroad.

Considering the hectic schedules we do all have, the meetings we attend and the responsibilities we undertake, a two-hour session in a week may sound like a binding commitment to undertake. However, the time you meet your student, it becomes far clear that teaching to such dedicated and ambitious students is not a commitment, but a new door opening to learn and experience more in your personal and professional development. Your teaching becomes giving and discovering, and learning becomes a key to others’ opportunities to see. For the ones who are interested in this programme, please see:"

Berrin CEFA SARI graduated from Hacettepe University, Department of English Language and
Literature in 2009. She received her Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction after studying at
Ankara University. She started teaching in 2010 and started working at TOBB University of Economics
and Technology in 2013. She has been carrying out curriculum development duties in the institution
since 2015.

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