Walking out of the cinema, tears streaming down my face, I knew it was time for me to give back. I, Daniel Blake was only a film, but it was also so much more than that. I couldn’t stop thinking about the struggles those characters went through. It made me feel that we need to pull together as a society.
On the bus home I started researching what I could do to make a difference. I looked at befriending the elderly and IT support charities, but then I heard about one that supports children from disadvantaged backgrounds by using volunteers to tutor maths and English. Currently, 60% of pupils not receiving free school meals achieve five or more A*–C grades at GCSE, compared with just 33% of those who do get free school meals. Tutoring is an effective way to raise a pupil’s attainment – but when an hour of private tutoring can cost up to £40, it is completely out of reach for those who need it most. As a former maths graduate, I knew I’d found the project for me.
At the start of term, after an evening’s training from Action Tutoring, I turned up at my chosen secondary school – and I was nervous! A colleague said that as someone who had always just “got” maths, I may not be very good at teaching it. What if he was right? Or what if the students didn’t want to be there, or they misbehaved? The school was in one of the most deprived boroughs of London, so I was preparing myself for the worst.
I needn’t have worried. The boys were two of the most polite 16-year-olds I’ve ever met. They were both working at D-grade level, but it was hoped that with extra support they could get a C. In fact, they were both aiming higher, as they had dreams of becoming a sports journalist and IT engineer.
As well as being engaged, these boys were caring and funny. At the first lesson back after half term, I asked how their week off had been and one responded with a cheeky wink: “It was Valentine’s Day, miss – I had a great time!” Oh to be a teenager again!
And the weeks continued … Sometimes we worked from textbooks; other sessions they’d come ready to discuss a topic from class. On one occasion one of the boys came in looking a bit low. I asked him what was wrong and he explained that he hadn’t understood any of their lesson earlier that day. By the end of our session, he was laughing and joking and, more to the point, he understood. All he needed was a bit of time and patience – and I was able to give him both. My favourite moments are seeing something click into place like that.
I really hope I have taught the boys some valuable skills and helped to give them confidence. But volunteering has helped me to learn a lot of things about myself, too.
All he needed was a bit of time and patience – and I was able to give him both
I learned how to blag a situation when I don’t know the answer: “Now talk me through your first steps”, I said, hoping to remember what on earth the sine rule was.
I learned that repetition really is a good thing, and getting the boys to successfully explain techniques to each other or their teachers helped their confidence.
I learned that not everyone can just remember things, and I worked out how to make up mnemonics to help. I was particularly impressed with my on-the-spot way of remembering which is the X-axis and which is the Y-axis on a graph: “X is a-cross and Y is high”.
But I also decided that not everything I learned at school was appropriate to pass on. My maths teacher taught me trigonometry with Sex On Holiday (SOH) Can Affect Health (CAH) Til Old Age (TOA). 16-year-old boys … Maybe not.
And so I continue. While I’m primarily volunteering to help make a difference to these boys’ lives, I won’t pretend it’s not satisfying. My highlight so far was when the school coordinator told me one of my tutees had just run up to her, beaming, because he’d received the second highest result in his class for his mock exam. He’d never received such good marks and said he was so proud he felt like crying. I actually did cry.
This article was written by Emily McGovern and first appeared on the Guardian Voluntary site as part of their ‘The Day I Made a Difference’ series.