Volunteer teacher helps build a sense of community

Lively conversations about daily life are a prominent feature of the English classes that Rustem Ata Turk volunteers to lead at the Guanren International Book Bar. Mr. Ata Turk’s classes often consist of a group of students of various ages and backgrounds eagerly joining the conversation, declaring their own ideas and helping each other refine their English skills.  A man of medium build, Mr. Ata Turk enjoys teaching and has other hobbies such as competitive dancing. He recently returned from Shanghai, where he participated in a tango competition. He has also practiced transcendental meditation (超越冥想) for more than a decade.

Hailing from Turkey, Mr. Ata Turk earned a master’s degree at Xiamen University before joining a local stone export firm. He described falling in love with the “peaceful and relaxing lifestyle,” where he has lived for the better part of a decade.

Proficient in the Chinese language, he is an avowed Sinophile who spent years studying Taoism and Confucianism. He has also studied Wing Chun, the traditional Chinese martial arts originating from Fujian.

When Guanren community workers helped him to sign up for the covid-19 vaccination, they also encouraged him to volunteer to teach. He readily accepted the invitation and now holds weekly classes on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. He describes his goals as the practice of spoken English and the development of multicultural relations amongst his students.

In his class, Mr. Ata Turk requests that his students only speak English. The class centers around the actual students: who they are, what they like to do, how they spend their daily lives. “Language is not only in books,” said Mr. Ata Turk. “It doesn’t belong to you unless you use it,” he added.

Although Mr. Ata Turk is a volunteer teacher, his involvement is extensive both before and after class. He helps students to prepare presentations and dialogues, later posting to the class WeChat group a list of key words utilized or discussed in class. He encourages students to review these new words and incorporate them into articles they compose as their homework.

His teaching philosophy focuses on vocabulary and communication skills more than grammar for his class because the goal is pragmatic language usage. “Native speakers understood my English when I traveled to Australia and the U.S.,” said student Fan Yuqing. “For me, a person can never be too old to learn.”

Mr. Ata Turk said that he enjoys volunteer teaching because of the disparate nature of his students. His classes include everyone from college students to professors to retired senior engineers. Some have never studied English formally while others are endeavoring to renew their language skills after a long time.

As a teacher, Mr. Ata Turk’s desire to instill confidence defines his class. All students receive patient support from Mr. Ata Turk, a demeanor that he encourages among fellow students. He said that the goal is not perfection but an ability to be understood. Flaws and mistakes are fun learning opportunities rather than a cause of embarrassment or disappointment, according to Mr. Ata Turk.

While language skills are important, added Mr. Ata Turk, his class is also an exploration of cultural diversity. His students discuss their hometowns and life experiences, whether they come from Shanxi, Xiamen or Xinjiang. International cultural differences are also discussed frequently.

An example he gives is that Western speakers emphasize prolonged direct eye contact to illustrate they are paying attention while Chinese speakers sometimes shy away from this habit. Paying attention to these kinds of differences can facilitate mutual understanding in cross-cultural communication, according to Mr. Ata Turk.

Mr. Ata Turk believes that cultural backgrounds differ but that underlying emotions and ideas are universally comprehensible. He described the commonality as akin to listening to Beethoven or a traditional Guzheng solo — the form and rhythm of the musical styles may differ but both can evoke similar feelings.

At the end of the day, Mr. Ata Turk hopes that his classes help students to understand each other and to broaden their horizons. He added that learning together, whether the subject is English or culture, is a beautiful way to establish friendships that transcend age, culture and language.