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Tips for Teaching English to Refugees

Teaching English is not a ‘one-size fits all’ endeavor.

Understanding your students’ needs and, more importantly, their backgrounds are always important.

However, it is even more crucial to exercise precise judgment when working with students coming from a life experience very different from your own. As a comedian would say, you must be able to “read the room”.

I’ve recently embarked on a totally new ESL teaching journey, one that has, unfortunately, become all the more necessary due to the humanitarian crisis occurring around the globe: working with refugees and asylum seekers.

With such a growing demand for relocated persons to learn English in order to integrate into their new home, I’d like to pass on some newly acquired wisdom that I’ve gained through my recent experiences.

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Dealing with Trauma

Oftentimes, people taking these classes have experienced extreme physical, emotional, and/or mental trauma.

As a teacher, it is indeed your job to be supportive. However, it’s even more important to provide a kind of escape from institutionalization and a return to some sense of normality.

Your students may spend a lot of their time being interrogated, questioned, waiting in queues and waiting rooms, and being talked at.

They have people exerting their authority over them constantly, and they will most probably come to your classroom feeling vulnerable to the inherent power dynamic of teacher and student.

Providing an escape can come in a variety of forms, and it’s important for a teacher to be responsive and creative.

Focus on talking points and subject matters that reflect everyday life in the new country by finding common ground in the form of daily experiences.

For example, I’ve found that my new students respond best to learning directional terms, looking at maps, and being able to explain where things are located, to name just a few things.

The class might be the only opportunity that they have throughout the day to communicate on such matters, learning about their new home in an environment that does not put them at risk of being shot down by potentially unwelcoming or intimidating people.

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Work with, not for

One commonality that I’ve frequently seen in both my research and my work experience is the frustration from refugees and forced migrants over being victimized.

This is not meant to sound insensitive – by nature, it is a sensitive situation and needs to be treated as such.

However, my students have often expressed feelings of dehumanization and a lack of dignity and self-worth due to constantly having others do things for them.

After having their lives uprooted, these populations of people yearn for some sense of normality; seemingly trivial, everyday tasks are a perfectly doable way of providing them with that.

Find ways to incorporate this into a lesson through everyday tasks and activities, empowering your students to have the knowledge and confidence to apply the skills outside the classroom.

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Be mindful.

This should go without saying. As a teacher, we must always remain mindful and focused on certain details, especially when working with young children.

However, working in a class featuring vulnerable populations requires a keen sense of what is acceptable and not.

Adults are mature (usually) and can handle discussions about more sensitive issues, such as incurred trauma, political views, and prospects for the future.

These discussions must be approached carefully, but still, they are conversations that can be had. These topics might not be appropriate for younger students who are confused, so try to stick to more positive subjects rather than pitying them for the past.

Remember, you are not a psychologist. Mindfulness goes beyond topics of conversation, as well. Small, seemingly innocuous factors may act as triggers for different people.

For example, ‘hangman’ is a game regularly utilized by ESL teachers to practice spelling and vocabulary recognition. It seems harmless, right? Before playing a game involving this type of word and subsequent drawing, think about what your students may have seen in their lives.

Games involving shooting, death, and things of the like are best to be avoided, in my experience. You are the leader of your classroom and, as such, you have the responsibility to read the room and act/plan accordingly.

More simply put, there are four takeaway tips that are especially critical for new teachers setting out on a similar teaching journey, be sensitive, find common ground, don’t be patronizing, and don’t try to be the hero.

While there are undeniable, exceptional challenges to teaching vulnerable populations such as refugees and asylum seekers, they can be overcome with a bit of compassion and mindfulness.

Related Articles:

TESOL in Canada: The Classroom Outside The Classroom

 Cultural Considerations: (Inter)Cultural Dynamics in The Canadian ESL Classroom

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