Teacher A is an elementary school teacher in Grand Rapids, who is becoming increasingly passionate and curious about methods and resources to better serve his/her refugee students. When asked about the biggest linguistic, social, and cultural challenges that he/she faces, Teacher A noted that the language barrier was the primary significant hurdle in being able to reach (and teach) students. As far as overcoming social challenges, Teacher A emphasized the importance of getting to know the students’ cultures, often through taking personal time to research their backgrounds, thus becoming sensitized to the traumatic experiences that often accompany these students. Teacher A sees more breakdowns, crying, and screaming among his/her refugee students, which of course disrupts a classroom environment, but instead of seeing it as a burden, Teacher A sympathetically referred to these episodes as “eye-opening” and with disbelief said of the unimaginable things that underlie these breakdowns, “this is happening in our world, and I’m seeing it first hand through them.” Simply providing comfort and reassurance of safety is how Teacher A and other staff at the school have sought to handle such situations, as the language barrier often prevents further intervention and support. Teacher A is cognizant now of his/her voice volume, sudden movements, and overall body language when working with these students. Through this research and increased understanding of the refugee journey, Teacher A is also aware of the cultural differences specifically when it comes to education saying of some of his/her students, “this is, for some of them, their first time in school ever, besides in the refugee camps.” Teacher A went on to answer my question about how the presence and perspective of refugee students changes the dynamic in the classroom by saying, “so for my other students, I tell them, if [the refugee students] are upset, we don’t need to know why, they can’t really tell us why they’re upset, so getting my students to just be kind and respectful and understanding is the first step…the other students have done an amazing job accepting, welcoming – I mean, they’re kids, they’re going to be friends with everyone. So that’s been an amazing thing to see, no matter what your background is, your culture is, they try to be friends.” (Heart warming, huh?)
Teacher A cites a lack of resources for ELLs / refugee students, including school counselors, but also notes that professional development seminars hosted by local refugee resettlement agencies have been incredibly helpful to his/her staff in further preparing teachers to work with refugee students. When asked whether he/she thought that closer ties & more communication between social work agencies and schools would be beneficial to this population of students, the answer was yes. Additionally, in speaking about further resources for refugee children, I mentioned the Refugee Education Center’s after school program and 7-week summer school program, both of which were not known to Teacher A, which suggests the need for more transparency in what resources are available. To conclude our conversation, Teacher A and I agreed that, going forward, teacher preparation programs should include more ESL preparation and training even for teachers of math, science, etc. for situations such as these, where the funding for a specialized ESL teacher may not be available. In our increasingly diverse, multilingual, and globalized world, these skills are invaluable.
📌 Special thank you to Teacher A for speaking with me about your experiences with refugee students and for your passion to serve this population. The act of talking about these local issues stems from a greater desire to improve larger social issues in our world!