A primary teacher, Rosemary Spanner takes a Beginners class where repetition and the use of visuals are important. Her students are desperate to learn English so they can be part of their children's lives and one day get a job.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I came to Australia from South Africa when I was thirteen. My father did not want my three brothers to do compulsory military service and he believed a move to Australia was the answer. I did my last three years of schooling in Sydney, studied primary teaching and taught at Loreto Kirribilli for almost ten years.
How did you hear about St Bakhita Centre?
Through the North Sydney Parish bulletin and the Riverview newsletter. That was about six years ago.
'It is extremely difficult to learn and retain new words and concepts if you have limited literacy in your own language AND limited knowledge of Western concepts.'
What do you do there?
When I rang Sister Maria and asked if I could visit the centre, I thought I would help out with the children. But when Maria found out I was a teacher, she got me to teach English. I take a Beginner English class of about five to eight students once a week.
What are the biggest challenges the women face in their learning?
When I first started, one of the biggest challenges they faced was that they didn’t know how to write. We take for granted that we can pick up a pencil and know what to do with it. Some of my students had never used a pencil or scissors before they arrived in Australia.
Another challenge is actually retaining the words because they do English for two hours a day maybe twice a week. The rest of the time they speak their own language. My lessons can often just be teaching words, always with pictures. Everything I do is with a picture so that they can visualize it.
The whole idea of sentence structure is also difficult for them. Often an answer to a question will be one word. I am always trying to get them to expand their answers to use their sight words. They find it very hard to put everything together in a sentence so it is a slow process but they don’t give up. They are amazing. They are so desperate to learn.
I would say my English class is about helping each student to confidently go about her daily life and integrate into the community; so that when they go to the shops they’ll know that a 'tomato' is a tomato. Although some of my ladies are definitely more advanced now. They have made great progress.
How old are the ladies you teach?
I really don’t know because many of them don’t know their own date of birth but a lot of them are grandmothers so they are probably in their forties. They marry and have their children young.
What challenge does limited literacy in their own language pose for learning English?
It is extremely difficult to learn and retain new words and concepts if you have limited literacy in your own language AND limited knowledge of ‘Western' concepts. As a result, repetition has been really important in my classes. We have about sixty to seventy sight words that we just keep going through. And everything is visual. We do a lot of reading but with beginner books that have lots of pictures. Otherwise it is just too hard.
What are their goals in learning English?
They want to be able to survive in society. To me, the most important thing is that if they are in the street and get lost they can walk up to someone and say, 'How do I get to the station?'
Something that we take for granted. We do a lot of living skills like reading a map because they have never used a map before. We used to talk about public transport but they are pretty good with trains now because they have all taught each other. We also do a lot with money.
It is mainly about survival and confidence. They desperately want to speak English because they have to go to school interviews with teachers and they want to be able to help their kids or grandkids with their homework. The other issue is that a lot of their children and grandchildren are speaking English now rather than Dinka. One of my students is finding that her children are using English more and more at home which leaves her feeling quite lost because her English is not as good.
Is it hard for your students to get jobs?
The students are keen to get jobs but limited English language skills are a real problem. Another one of my students got a cleaning job in a hotel but has to fill out a form listing any breakages she comes across during her shift. She is lucky because her boss lets her take the form home so her son can help her fill it out. This is the sort of issue they face. Simple things like that can be real hurdles for them.
What do you enjoy about being a volunteer at the centre?
I love the energy of the place. It is such a gift to be involved with this community. I love the women. They are just amazing; their resilience is incredible. They have so many issues to deal with on a daily basis but they never stop trying and smiling. It is also wonderful to see them gain confidence with their English. Even if I can help one person for five minutes of their life then it’s worth it.
What have you learnt from being at St Bakhita’s?
There is a huge amount that you learn from this community. The resilience that people have. What human beings can accept and how they can adjust to the life they have been given.
The idea of never complaining. I cannot think of a time when any of them have ever complained. They are so grateful to be here. And the whole concept of never taking anything for granted.
We have a great relationship. I absolutely adore them. We have a lot of laughs. For them, the centre is a place to go where they are comfortable and it gives them an incredibly strong network. They help and learn from each other. They gain a lot from being involved at St Bakhita’s.
What challenges do the Sudanese community face?
The woman will always survive because they are incredibly strong and very resilient. The young men seem to feel isolated and a little lost and this is a real challenge for the community. The young men need more support and guidance. My biggest hope is that they will find male role models that will guide them and give them a focus.
What would you say to those considering volunteering?
It is one of the most rewarding things that I have done. You learn so much about a community. You are not only giving back to a group of people that really need support and encouragement, you are gaining so much more.