What I Have Learned Teaching My Refugee Students

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Thus far in my teaching career, I believe that the world of education, with all its various shifts in direction, is no different than the world and the shifts it makes. As the world’s people adjust, get stronger, and evolve, so do the millions of educators willing to evolve with the ever changing needs of their students. I am no different than these educators and neither is the program I work within.

Since its inception in 2009, the Language Institute at Modesto City Schools has been rapidly evolving to meet the English acquisition needs of our newcomer immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking students from all over the world. Although our largest demographic of students are from Spanish speaking countries, we also have high volumes of students from all around the world, including Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Many of these students came to us seeking refuge from violence and war and over the last few years, we have seen a demographic shift that matches the shifts we see in the world.

Always reflecting on the unique situation I find myself, I am constantly learning new things.   Yet, there are some lessons that have stood out to me more than others. They are:

  1.  Nothing ever stays the same, so be flexible! Due to the nature of diaspora, I never expect to see the same demographic of student year after year, nor do I expect to remain with the same amount of students I had on the first day of school. On a weekly basis we are receiving new students, so we are prepared both programmatically and individually to openly accept any student, at any point in the year, and meet each student’s educational needs at his or her own level. As a result, my teaching methods, strategies, and curriculum are always being altered (often at the spur of the moment) to tailor my lessons to ensure that each of my students, regardless of previous educational experience, understand what I am teaching. It is sometimes mentally exhausting, but I am ok with that.
  2. “I am not just their English teacher!” Although not a novel statement, in the case of our program, we too, fill the roles of mom, dad, mentor, etc. However, we also act as conduits for navigating and interpreting the United States. It is a large responsibility, but it is a role I feel honored to fulfill. I am among my students’ first American experiences!  What that often means is during a grammar lesson for example, aimed at teaching words like “she, her, he, and him” can easily turn into teaching American sayings like: “Right on,”, “For real,” or “OMG.” Usually that evolves into me doing a dramatic performance in order to display the context, the action or the tone in which these phrases need to be delivered.
  3. Newcomer students just want to fit in. Like any American teenager, newcomer students just want to find their place. The difference between our students and a native born student is that our students initially lack the majority language, are possibly not of the majority religion, or possibly do not wear the fashion of the majority. So again, it is our job to teach them how to be confident in their own skin and how to feel empowered by the special gifts they each bring. Although not always easy, constant reinforcement of this message, lots of hugs and an open ear helps foster this confidence.
  4. Always be willing to evolve in thought. With each new student comes new thoughts, ideas and mindsets. Although I have always worked to be as open-minded as possible, I have learned to expand my mind further with each new student. There is so much to learn from each student. I am the person I am today because of the global perspectives my students have brought to me.

While I would never claim to say that I know all there is to know about teaching newcomer immigrant and refugee students, I do know that I love doing it! I feel privileged teaching among a global community of students and highly value the lessons I take away every day. It can of course be challenging, but I feel lucky that the growing pains that come with my personal evolution as a teacher also come bearing gifts in the form of my students.

Amelia Herrera is an English Language Development teacher who works with students from all over the world. This year marks her 10th year doing this work and she is a READ180 Teacher of the Year award finalist. Currently Amelia is approaching the dissertation research stage of her Ed.D  in Educational Leadership at California State University, Stanislaus. With the knowledge she is gaining while earning this degree, she plans on continuing her work in education, both as a teacher and with a local educational organization(s) and hopes to implement change that will provide a more equitable and quality education for each and every student in her schools.

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