Since 2016, Olive Lawson has been involved with the St Barnabas ESOL Class where she has been using her gift of language to help migrants. She shares her story.

Olive Lawson never imagined her teaching career would take her around the world; working with both the most privileged and the underprivileged.

She began her career teaching English and was particularly passionate about teaching Shakespeare.

“I was in my element teaching Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice or Romeo and Juliet. Once married with children, I continued working part-time, reluctant to give up even an hour of this most stimulating work.”

However, as fate would have it, Olive’s husband’s work took her overseas to live in several non-English speaking countries.

“I realised if I wanted to stay in the classroom, I’d have to give up Shakespeare,” she said.

And so began her career as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher.

During her time overseas, Olive taught at the most expensive school in Bangkok, and years later returned to run an English Language School for girls in an underprivileged area.

“Our hope was that knowledge of English would keep them out of prostitution and help get good office jobs.”

When the New Zealand government allowed international fee-paying students into schools, Olive was a pioneer recruiter in Asia and on returning to New Zealand she worked in schools with a predominance of refugee students.

In 2016, along with Wendy Kington and Elizabeth Green, Olive began an ESOL class at St Barnabas.

“I wanted to serve God and my community by gifting my English language teaching skills to help others.

“I was aware of the huge numbers of migrants living and working in Christchurch at that time and from the beginning the class flourished.

The class had around 18 students, largely made up of migrants from Asia, although that number has dropped since Covid began.

“Before long we realised that students came not only to improve their English, but also to connect with other migrants, exchange tips and make friendships.”

Teaching English to adults can have its challenges.

“Adults need to keep their dignity in the learning process. A highly successful person in their own language, now reduced to learning at a five-year-old level, is not easy to handle. Positive reinforcement and recognition of the steps to success help.

“Some are angry. Everything in New Zealand is wrong, too complex, too hard. They remember how easy everything was in their home country. Others plateau in their learning after initially making good progress. Keeping morale high, a positive classroom atmosphere and acknowledging their skills is vital for learning to take place.”

Without English, life is very difficult and isolating for migrants and refugees who struggle to meet friends, get a job, or fulfil the simplest of tasks.

“English is the golden key that unlocks life for migrants and refugees in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

“Gifting a knowledge of the language is like gifting new life to the learner, assisting them to function in a new country in a new language. It’s tremendously rewarding and I have been thanked hundreds and hundreds of times, for my contribution to their steps on the journey to fluency in English.”

Olive encourages anyone who encounters migrants and refugees to remember the Bible verse:

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Matthew 25:35

“Speak. Smile. Both these actions are free, and migrants too often gravitate to their own communities because it’s safer, easier and no one speaks to them out in the wider world. Friendly words break down barriers. Let them know they are welcome. The most basic Christian outreach is about welcoming and hospitality.

“Let us never forget the commandment: Love your neighbour.” 

By Tania Wright