Preparing to teach refugees and immigrants

The Refugee Center Online is lucky to have 32 teachers taking our Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students course. Many are from Missoula and have just started to teach refugees and immigrants.

Prior to 2016, it had been over 30 years since there was a refugee resettlement office in Missoula, Montana. Many of the refugee resettlement support services that the community had developed were closed and forgotten. The teachers in Missoula had largely taught only white, rural Montana-born children their entire careers. There has been little need to learn how to teach refugees and immigrants: ESL techniques, cross-cultural communication skills, or trauma in the classroom.

Missoula has a newly-opened IRC office which began welcoming refugee families in 2016.

In a largely white rural community, the prospect of bringing in newcomers was met with curiosity, concern, and some opposition.  

A group of community members wanted to help soften the reception for newly arrived refugee families and created a welcoming committee, naming their group Soft Landing Missoula. Soft Landing has been providing community education and advocacy as well as hosting events, forums and other creative opportunities for Missoula residents to meet their newest neighbors. They want Missoula, Montana, to be a welcoming, supportive and informed community that can assist refugees in integrating and thriving.

Teachers are struggling to locate and develop support services for these refugee students, who are so different from the students they are used to having in their classrooms. To date, the groups have welcomed several refugee families, including forty-seven refugee students from Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, and the Dominican Republic of the Congo.

Language is the most obvious and immediate barrier between these students and their teachers and peers, but educators are beginning to notice other things as well when they teach refugees.

Interrupted education makes it hard to place students in age-appropriate activities. There are cultural differences around manners and beliefs. Family dynamics are different, as is the presence of trauma and fear. Teachers are feeling the need to develop support systems now while the refugee student population is still small. There is growing community support for their refugee families and it is best not to wait until the problems are exacerbated.

Twenty-three teachers from the Missoula public school district are currently taking our Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students course. As a cohort, they are working together to support one another within the district. Having a forum for open dialogue – to share challenges and successes – is a good first place to start. In addition to working through our curriculum together, the teachers are asked to complete a community-based learning project. They will complete a certain amount of observation and/or volunteer time, and rethink their classroom approaches accordingly.  

Some of the amazing projects that these Montana teachers are developing could potentially be adopted by any rural school to help expand refugee student inclusion:

Creating safe and comfortable methods for personal storytelling: Scott, a middle school communications and journalism teacher, will be exploring storytelling with refugee students using a variety of online media.

Building supports to usher kids between grade levels and schools: Lisa is focusing on the transition between middle school and high school, by creating a leadership committee to share keys to success with refugee students.

Creating a database of resources that can be used by everyone in the district: Jenna, Doug, and Amy are creating a binder of community resources and support for early childhood transitions into the school.

Helping all students know and express themselves in light of “others” in the community: Joe is developing a questionnaire, focused on getting to know the more personal side of his refugee students. It will also be used to help his native-born Montana students rethink their own assumptions.

Engaging parents and families: Katya, a teacher on special assignment in the district, will be rethinking the parent-teacher conference model, with the hopes of making them more appealing and productive for everyone involved.

Encouraging development of classroom expectations that are cooperative and harmonious: Blake, Nick, and Katie are rethinking various student resources in the classrooms to ensure that all of their students, refugee and native-born, are included in classroom expectations. They will have written materials and pictures available in their languages.

If you’ve got success stories of classroom projects or resources for newcomer students, please engage with us on Twitter and Facebook!

Refugees shaking hands

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