Natasha’s story: Running women-only English classes

Natasha from ‘Selam’ English school in Croydon chats with Marina about her group and what makes it special.

Could you begin by giving us a brief description of your English School?

We have been going since April 2014, when my friend Rachel and I set up the class.  We both have lived and worked abroad and have a love for the multicultural town of Croydon in which we live.  After some research into similar groups in the area, we decided that a women-only group was missing from the availability – partly to reach those women whose cultures don’t allow them to mix with the opposite sex and partly to reach women who are free during school hours but who don’t get any opportunity to learn or practise English normally.  We have childcare available which enables many young mothers to also attend, who may not be able to access the evening classes at the local college. We have 4 TEFL trained teachers and about 10 volunteers in the classes including an 84 year old former missionary from South Sudan who comes to teach literacy to our Afghan ladies. We have 20 creche volunteers too!  We teach two mornings a week in South Croydon at Emmanuel Church, and one morning at West Croydon Baptist Church.

We decided to call the classes ‘Selam’. Not only is this an acronym for ‘Speaking English, Learning and Meeting’ but it’s also a greeting in many countries around the world, meaning ‘peace’.  So the name has attracted women for different reasons.  And one of the groups of women that have been drawn to the class through the name have been Muslims.

What’s it like teaching a women-only group?  In particular Muslim women?

Our experience since setting up has been that a women-only group means a greater level of vulnerability in the class together with openness and a willingness to share more personally.  It also means that when we host or hold social events, they are very well attended as women love to chat and socialise together – that crosses many cultural barriers! And many of the women make friends and meet up outside class too.

Among the fifty or so women that attend our classes, we have Muslim students from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Bangladesh and Turkey, and we count it  an amazing privilege to have them walk into a church-based, Christian-led class week by week.  Of course, the aim of our class is to help women learn about living in the UK, to help them befriend others in similar situations, and most of all, to learn English. But we have also learnt so much in turn about the women who arrive – and it has been a joy to witness other students, who may not have anything to do with Muslims in daily life or in their home countries, begin to learn and appreciate the women behind the hijab as personalities with character and history, just like them.

What has the Lord shown you about teaching these women?

Making friends with Muslims is something that many people in the UK, especially Christians, treat with suspicion.  In our experience at Selam, we have found that being open and interested breaks down barriers.

What course content/topics have you found particularly relevant to these women?

We often have conversation classes with topics such as ‘your childhood’ or ‘your family’.  This opens doors to finding out more about what stories lie behind them and what makes them tick.  It also gives us the opportunity to talk about our lives and share who we are – breaking down mutual barriers. Relationship builds trust, which means that real friendship is born.

How does faith feature at Selam in general / in  your classes?

Faith is a topic that frequently comes up for us, especially when we have Christmas or Easter specials.  We had one girl ask to give out literature promoting Islam, and we needed to explain that was not appropriate for a church-based group.  She listened as we explained, and she understood. She still comes to the class, and there have been opportunities for the church to bless her family in turn since then.  By listening non-judgmentally to what our Muslim students believe and how they see the world, we learn about them. But it also gives us the space in turn to share freely and clearly what we believe as Christians, and more excitingly, to help correct misconceptions such as that everyone born in the UK is a Christian.

Do you have any pearls of wisdom for those teaching women-only groups?

We strongly believe that the idea for our English class came from the Lord.  He has led and guided us all the way – for example, choosing very deliberately to have a women-only class has meant that there are Muslim women whose husbands allow them to come out of the house.  We have learnt that there is great wealth in being able to take our class a step deeper than other classes – showing genuine interest and love in the students we teach, and encouraging social events, as well as offering to pray at times of grief or difficulty.  I hope you are encouraged in your class to persevere in this unique way of reaching out into your community!